Accessibility and the Pursuit of Happiness

As I have argued elsewhere [Towards A General Theory of Access]:

The only reason to locate anywhere is to be near some people, places, and things, be far from others, and possess still others. Since being far from something is really just being near the absence of that thing, and pos-session is just the ability to have something (and legally prohibit someone else from having it), we can see that location is about proximity. People make location decisions all the time, from whether to move from North America to Australia, to traveling to the mall by car or bus, to standing near a person at a reception, or even sitting on the chair or the couch.

Cities and their networks exist to easily connect people with each other. We measure that ability in terms of accessibility. The more accessibility, the more opportunity. Opportunity gives choices, and better choices make for happiness (too many choices may paradoxically reduce happiness, but surely that is a problem we would prefer to have than too few.) In short cities and networks allow the pursuit of happiness. So accessibility is about freedom: the freedom to pursue happiness.

But this freedom is limited by at least three types of constraints (Hägerstrand, 1970). Extending an earlier discussion:

  • Capability constraints refer to biological (e.g., sleeping and eating) and physical (e.g., vehicle ownership, time availability, maximum speed of travel, ability to afford) limitations that restrict an individual from participating in activities. In our case network speed and directness affects travel times, and the spatial distribution of activities affects participation. Dependence on public transport restricts travel to the schedule of the service. The less frequent the service, the less freedom one has, as argued by Jarrett Walker in Frequency is Freedom.
  • Authority constraints represent limitations to accessing particular areas (e.g., military bases) or individuals that are classified by certain people or institutions. Legal barriers to travel, regulations on speed, rules about what vehicles can be in which spaces are all authority constraints.
  • Coupling constraints indicate limitations for two or more individuals to participate in an activity in the same location at the same time interval. There may also be social and familial obligations that limit the ability to pursue other activities.

These are not fully independent. Policies about the allocation of road space, which may give more space over to automobiles than bicycles than warranted is a combination of authority constraint and capability constraint.

So because the value of cities emerges from freedom and access, the limits to freedom and access limit value. While some of those limits are unavoidable, others, like authority constraints, can be determined by policy.

Staying in my lane, transport in cities have a number of problems. The following is a non-exclusive, unranked list. These are all problems associated with access in one form or another.

  1. Pedestrian and bicyclist conditions, particularly safety from vehicles, are worse in many ways than a century ago. My ability to move on foot (and thus access destinations) is restricted by traffic signals and the danger of moving cars.
  2. Violence, and more significantly fear of violence, especially state-sanctioned violence, discourages people subject to such violence from taking advantage of access that is already there. If there are places you cannot go without risking life and limb, you will avoid them, reducing your access and freedom.
  3. Job/housing imbalance exists and may get worse as cities get larger. Longer commute distances (and thus times) reduce access and opportunity. Many cities have regulations that limit housing in job-rich areas. The City of Sydney is no exception. This necessarily increases commute times.
  4. Failure to efficiently price parking and roads leads to overuse. Roads are congested and transport is underfunded. If only there were mechanisms to reduce overuse while raising revenue. On-street parking reduces capacity for movement (car, bike and bus lanes), reducing the speed, and thus access by those modes, while benefitting very few who need to walk a shorter distance to their final destination.
  5. Transport externalities (road hazard, noise, pollution) are underpriced, and thus overproduced. This increases the social cost of access. They are ignored in most analyses of traffic, and so spending is misallocated.
  6. Walled and fenced schools, lack of integration between schools, playgrounds, and libraries make things that should and could be accessible with a modicum of management inaccessible much of the time.
  7. Housing affordability, quality, and supply directly relate to how easily new housing can be reached. Lack of housing reduces accessibility.
  8. Poor design and aesthetics makes places unpleasant and reduces the valuation people put on those places. Effective accessibility drops.
  9. Concurrency between infrastructure and development is hard to achieve in growing areas. Lack of infrastructure increases travel costs (and reduces access) for existing residents as well as new. Access creates value but that value is not captured to fund access.
  10. Overspending on capital and underspending on maintenance means that transport facilities built a long time ago fail more quickly and become unavailable, reducing access. Existing facilities are almost always more important than new facilities, because the demand (and access) provided are certain, because they have become part of the landscape, and so decades of decisions have been made assuming their existence.

The right to pursue happiness is a fundamental value in the United States, right there in the founding document, the Declaration of Independence. It depends entirely on the ability to move in order to reach people, places, and things that might provide happiness. That is, in modern terms, access.

The problems enumerated above are all solvable, like so many other problems in modern society, and yet remain unsolved in many places. Without much technical difficulty we could expand effective access for people on foot, on bike, or on public transport, and even those in cars. Transport access problems may seem prosaic compared to the core issues of environmental disaster, economic exuberance, or the risk to democracy. But these problems relate directly. Transport produces pollution, more than it should because the pollution is unpriced. Transport spending is inefficient, stretching the economy. The problems of democracy are in many ways problems of access as well, not just access to polling places (though that is worsening), but access to the decision process, and access to information.

Queen Victoria Buidling, George Street, Sydney.
Queen Victoria Buidling, George Street, Sydney.

On the State of Science

“Science is a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe.” — (Wikipedia).

To be clear, science is a process, not a set of facts or findings. It produces facts and findings, and refutes them from time to time. Much of the scientific enterprise now occurs at research universities, which are strange, chimerical beasts charged with both advancing human knowledge and entertaining 18-22 year olds.

To be clear, I think science has been extraordinarily successful as an enterprise, moving from a fringe program pursued by a few mostly wealthy individuals with excess leisure to one with millions of practitioners, responsible for most of the world around us.

However, the enterprise is also far from perfect.  As with any social system, status games matter.

The first problem is Pseudo-Science vs Science. While science generally wins these battles, that it keeps fighting them is a drain on more productive activities. Carl Sagan spent a surprisingly large time in the original Cosmos series complaining about astrology. Stephen Jay Gould famously devoted much ink against creationism. They were famous, media-savvy scientists, not like most practitioners, who could proceed day-to-day conducting normal science. But they also captured attention fighting, since the media and the public like nothing better than conflict.  Today, the anti-vaxxers may get millions killed from preventable diseases, and simultaneously chill discussion of real risks associated with vaccines, as any risk is exaggerated and inflated. More attention is given to these ideas than they are worth.

Examples of trending pseudo-science:

  1. Biblical Literalism / Creationism / Intelligent Design / Young Earth
  2. Climate Deniers
  3. Anti-Vaxxers
  4. Astrology
  5. Flat Earth
  6. Alchemy

But like perpetual motion and phlogiston before them, wrong, refutable ideas are pushed to the fringe. As long as we hold fast to the process of conjectures and refutations, and ensure testable hypotheses are presented, science triumphs.

The second problem is Publish or Perish, and its reaction. Publication is essential to science, it is how knowledge is communicated. The US Promotion and Tenure (P&T) system requires academics to go up for tenure, usually after  6 years, at which point they get promoted or are relieved of duty. Other countries have less existential systems. Promotion at good schools requires evidence of journal publication, and sometimes requires that some number of these publications are in journals of a certain tier or have a certain impact factor (which is completely backward, and frankly embarrassing that the logic skills of those checking on impact factor is so poor). (Notably, it is rare that promotion committees check the actual citations of the works themselves or other measures of impact, the excuse given that the publications are too new to have garnered many citations).

While peer review predates journals, modern peer review is a relatively recent invention that acts as a random throttle on the release of knowledge.

As we learn from statistics there are Type I and Type II errors: False positives and false negatives. False positives are results that are published, but are wrong, meaningless, or trivial. False negatives are results that are rejected, but were not wrong, meaningless, or trivial. Peer review aims to reduce false positives, at the cost of false negatives.

Some evaluating agencies even complain that there is too much science being produced (they frame it as too many publications, but publications just document science). They are whining the knowledge is too hard to process, that authors salami-slice results to maximize the number of publications. But what is the right size of a result? The more words to convey the same information, the fewer the readers I suspect, all else equal.

There is bad science being produced, as the incentive is to produce publications, not science, and peer review is a highly random filter.

These problems include Lack of Reproducibility and Transparency and P-hacking, among others.  I have seen a few academics engage in Dual Publication (publishing the same paper, or essentially the same paper) in more than one outlet in parallel, and try to take credit for both. To be charitable, this is especially a risk with multiple authors who are not communicating well, or with conferences that publish, or semi-publish, proceedings. It is also done intentionally.

But there is also good science being produced, and authors spend too much time satisfying reviewers to jump through the peer review hoop to publish in “legitimate” journals so that their research will be accepted by the community of cited authors and itself accumulate citations. These hoops include reviewers and editors requiring additional citations and long introductions, literature reviews, and policy discussions that are largely irrelevant to the knowledge actually produced. Transport Findings aims to remedy this problem of too much verbose bullshit contaminating science.

Good science rejected often winds up in desk drawers, and is needlessly replicated by those who don’t know the work was already done, since it was never published. Good science that is not in the excessively standardized form of a 6000-word paper is hard to publish.

man sitting on the chair while observing outside during daytime
A photograph, because articles with photos are more likely to be read, and take up more screen space on Twitter. Photo by Flickr on

I think we worry too much about false positives and not enough about false negatives, Science is self-correcting, and a wrong result will eventually be discovered, and the paper either retracted or come-to-be-recognized as wrong. Academics with a reputation for many errors will eventually be discovered. Mistakes happen, and not all are due to evil intent.

Publish or perish is a function of the current state, and to its credit helps ensure academics overcome their fear of the imperfect and lack of performance for anything but externally imposed deadlines and ensures papers get out. Failing to make it through this system is not a comment on you personally, and there are many ex-academics leading perfectly productive lives.

Third, the Publications Crisis sees the cost of reading science (legally) getting higher and higher. Scientists are good at routing around problems, and most papers can be acquired conveniently from sci-hub for no charge (and it is easier to use than your local University library, what does that tell you?)

These for-profit, closed-access journals have their own incentives to jack their “impact factor” so that more authors will send their papers there, and more subscribers will read the journal at higher and higher prices. Journals play games like “online first” to garner citations before the date of publication to increase the impact factor.

These journals also engage in `Positive results bias’, being more likely to publish articles that have positive findings (A significantly affects B) instead of null findings (A and B are unrelated). While in a complex world, most things are unrelated, if someone hypothesized that they were, and we find they are not, that is still a valuable contribution to knowledge.

The science journalism community is complicity with this hype cycle, since ‘news’ requires everything to be framed as a breakthrough rather than normal science, as if (a) most ‘breakthroughs’ are real, and (b) progress comes through ‘breakthroughs’ rather than plodding. I’m all in favor of working smart rather than working hard, but actually collecting data and promulgating theory go hand in hand.  Most of us cannot be Newton, Darwin, or Einstein, and we cannot be continuously overthrowing Kuhnian paradigms. There is a bias toward Ravenclaw over Hufflepuff, but most work is Hufflepuff.

There are open access journals that fight this, like Transport Findings and Journal of Transport and Land Use, among others. Unfortunately, there are also fake and low-quality journals that are simply pay-to-play, taking advantage of naive and noob researchers, and those stuck in a Publish or Perish situation with weak oversight based simply on numerics rather than quality, which have become easier and easier to start in the age of the modern internet.  The community can sort this over time.

Fourth, the Academic Ponzi Scheme occurs because each academic at a top school is expected to produce Ph.D. students who themselves become academics at top schools, repeat. Many more PhDs are awarded than faculty positions exist. Most go to lower-ranked schools or industry, and lead happy, healthy lives (alternatively, maybe they retain anger and resentment forever, which is the impression I get from reading the Chronicle.) Some hang around and become adjuncts, working on temporary contracts, teaching more (and researching less), with a job that could disappear at any moment when the economics of the university program change.

Fifth, there is a lot of discussion of self-censorship due to Political Correctness. I don’t see it much in my own world, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Of course, everyone self-censors, one cannot, for instance, expect anyone to say bad things publicly about colleagues they have to work with in the future, or funding organizations that pay them now or are expected to in the future. But that is common sense.  Most of us with tenure or the equivalent have academic freedom to say what we want as long as we do so politely, without slandering or libeling people, etc. There are exceptions, the case of Paul Mees comes to mind, but that is more an issue of academic freedom than political correctness.

Finally, I want to discuss Problem Invention,  bringing distant dangers near. All the low-hanging fruit has been picked, so too much attention is paid to minor issues. I don’t believe it is my place to pass judgment on the importance of work as a reviewer or editor, history can judge. But I sure wish y’all would work on better problems. Much of transport research is about mathematical and statistical games with little practical application. Transport is only important because it is a practical problem.

The problems within science, unlike so many other sets of problems, are largely self-correcting.

The Precarity of Our Situation

Society, and the stock markets that price future risk, are underestimating the precarity of our collective situation.  We are staring at the precipice of environmental disaster, economic collapse, and an end to democratic governance. Any of this may or may not come to pass, but that it “might” is seemingly ignored, and anyone who mentions it is disparaged as a Cassandra, as if she didn’t speak the truth.

Environment: The environmental disaster awaiting us is getting more obvious. The earth is large but finite, and there are only so many emissions it can absorb in a given time. The capacity of this system is being saturated by the quantity of pollutants being emitted. Unfortunately for public policy, this is a slow-moving crisis and it does not respect national borders.

Sure there are some good trends for society overall, criteria air pollutants are largely down over the past few decades in most developed countries, but CO2 emissions keep rising, deforestation is chopping apace, birds are dying, ice is melting, and sea levels are rising.

Solutions like the deployment of renewable energy sources and electrification of the industrial and transport sectors are necessary steps. These steps will occur if the apocalypse does not arrive first, but are not likely fast enough to mitigate many of the impacts, which are baked in, so to speak. Reforestation and afforestation and the like may actually capture carbon. But these are long-term downstream solutions to a problem that is occurring now.


Economy: While I do not know if the market will crash tomorrow or next year, people’s collective beliefs are this will not happen at all. There are many downside risks. First, the people actually managing money supply and fiscal policy and so on are not quite the smartest people in the room. The US and many other governments have collectively decided that revenues and expenditures can be completely unhinged, even during an economic expansion. Money was always a fiction, but it becomes more fantastic every day.

To be clear, some risks are so terrible they are not worth pricing. For instance, let’s suppose there were a 10% chance of a large meteorite hitting the earth next year, killing human life on earth. In this case, stocks are worthless.  That scenario also implies a 90% chance that life continues, in which case stocks are worth $1M. The expected value (EV) would logically be $900k. However that’s not the right way to price this risk:  if stocks are worth zero, you won’t be around to not cash in, and if you short the market, you can never collect your winnings. Instead, we bet contingent on existence: P(EV|Existence).

However, there are also many non-existential, but still pretty bad, risks that people do not seem to be fully factoring in. Among them

  • war
  • environmental catastrophe short of annihilation
  • fast-spreading epidemic
  • trade war
  • depression/loss of confidence/recognition of bubble
  • technological catastrophe
  • fuel price rises/shortages before society is adapted to electrification


Democracy: There are a number of problems whose growth is exponential rather than linear or logarithmic. Economists look at the totals and say, while it is not good, it is also minor. A linguist says violence is declining over the long run. But consider mass shootings in the United States. While obviously a terrible thing, they are still (fortunately?) a very small share (less than 1%) of overall homicides (19,880) and deaths. But as this graphic from the Economist shows, they are growing at a roughly exponential rate. The increasing concern is probably due to the public’s ability to perceive change, compounded by an increasingly real-time, pervasive media that brings distant dangers near, rather than absolute levels.

The media that exaggerates the risk also compounds it, as the idea of committing mass shootings also spreads.  It is doubly-frustrating because this is an eminently solvable problem, as it is much less common in nearly every other country. Yet the US political system remains unable to resolve this, despite the horror.




Democracy is also in decline globally, as I noted in the previous post, according to Freedom House: (also note the axis is not zero, so it’s worse than it looks).



In the Balance: I have put together an informal catalog of well over 100 global problems, some of which I will discuss in future posts. This is far from a complete list, and focuses in more depth on the things I pay attention to, but it’s a start.

The good news is that most of these are resolvable. Some things are getting better, over the long run.

The bad news is that while they are resolvable, there is no evidence our political system will actually resolve them in a timely manner. And while some things may be getting better, many are hardly in good shape now. As I like to tell my class, things that are not sustainable do not sustain.  But how that unsustainable behavior resolves remains open.




On Transparency

I recently came across a story in the Sydney Morning Herald (SMH)Central_Walk_gateline

Internal documents show makeover of Sydney’s Central Station to top $3 billion by Matt O’Sullivan

The first paragraph reads …

“The cost of transforming Sydney’s Central Station into a gateway that includes a five-star hotel, high-rise towers and a new route for the inner west light rail line is estimated in leaked documents at just over $3 billion.”

[Emphasis added]

I am not entirely clear what is the newsworthy element of the story aside from the fact they were leaked (By whom? Was this intentional policy or disgruntled staffer?), but, perhaps the shocker is that the transformation is $3B, which used to be a lot of money (about $US 2.4B at current exchange rates). Seriously though, who knows what that includes, and what is really for the benefit of travelers as opposed to real estate interests.

The details of the transformation are interesting, but nothing someone who has been paying attention wouldn’t know was already going on. There are plans for the already announced new metro train line into the station, and a Central Walk, and redevelopment of the Central to Eveleigh corridor. Some more details in the leaked document, including a hotel in the station and a possible linkage to a vaporous high-speed rail.

But the more appalling thing to my American sensibilities is that this is a “leaked document”. (According to the SMH, it was also leaked to ABC, a credible news source in Australia, but I can’t find reference to it on their website). And as the recipients of the document, shouldn’t the SMH show us, their subscribers, the document. One more thing which makes me suspicious.

Assuming the leak was intentional, it is a way of getting public input before owning the project (‘oh, it was just a staff draft, that thing everyone hated, we never agreed to that’), but is it really necessary to filter this through the media. Can’t they just announce a study, announce findings periodically, hold real workshops, have real hearings, and then make a decision.

Shouldn’t all of this be public? Isn’t transparency good. If the government is watching us, shouldn’t we watch the government?

One important value of transparency in the process is that it establishes public sense and consensus before projects are made official. Proposals are discussed BEFORE they are adopted. Information becomes available, there is feedback, the project may be modified or adapted, and then the government “of the people” makes a decision to go forward OR NOT. Elected officials are not required to take an opinion until the details have been worked through in an open process. Often they don’t, so outcomes are unknown until the actual vote.

In contrast, in Australia, it seems as if a project is discussed internally and secretly within government, and then adopted, and then justified rhetorically after the fact if the Business Case supports it. (And the business case will be iterated until it complies.) Public feedback occurs only at elections. (Which is better than dictatorship, but that is not the bar we want to compare to.)

Now, many of these projects were on earlier plans, so it is not a complete surprise that the new regime is proposing a new motorway or rail line, but often they were only vaguely specified, and the Business Case comes after the Political Decision, and also is kept secret.

Source: ABC

The downside of course is that it is harder to do things that are controversial if the public has input before hand.

Maybe it should be. It would however undermine the official New South Wales slogan: Making **It Happen.

And to their credit, the present state government is building things everywhere, satisfying a pent-up demand that previous state administrations were unable to achieve. This is not cheap, and the government public works all taking place simultaneously are driving up costs, as they compete with each other for labor and materials.

The most famous example is the controversial WestConnex tunneled motorway. This is an $18B dollar expense, so one might think ensuring the Business Case is accurate and justifies the project before proceeding would have been important.

The Updated Strategic Business Case  document (November 2015) says:

WestConnex was a recommendation of Infrastructure NSW in October 2012, with Government adopting the concept in the 2012 State Infrastructure Strategy and the NSW Long Term Transport Master Plan.

This was followed by the development of
a business case, which was approved by Government in August 2013. An Executive Summary of that business case was publicly released.

This Updated Strategic Business Case consolidates the work undertaken in the original business case, with the significant modelling, analysis and scope enhancements completed in the past 24 months.

Look at the timeline. If I read this correctly, the business case was approved after the government adopted the concept. An executive summary was released afterwards (September 2013), but not the details until November 2015. The 2013 Business Case Executive Summary is basically a PowerPoint (landscape layout and all), and even then, the budget had already been approved before that was released.

Later the document notes that “In May 2014, the Australian Government entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with NSW to provide $1.5 billion in funding for WestConnex.”


The business case was released after pre-construction and some construction had already begun.* Which means the publicly available Business Case did not affect the decision to proceed (assuming no time travel). Which raises the question of why it exists at all and how decisions are actually made.

As to why it exists:

This business case has been developed with three specific sets of guidance in mind. It is intended to meet:

  • NSW Treasury requirements for Capital Business Cases, as outlined in NSW Treasury Policy Paper 08-5
  • Infrastructure NSW content expectations set out in the Infrastructure Investor Assurance Framework
  • The requirements and expectations set out in Infrastructure Australia’s ‘Better Infrastructure Decision Making’ guidelines.

In short, someone made us do it.

Now, like I said, I am not commenting on the substance of the decision, which also assumes we should take the Business Case on face value, but indicates a benefit/cost ratio well above 1. And props to Australia for actually using Benefit/Cost ratios (in principle) which is more than I can say for the United States.

However we can observe the project is controversial, particularly in the affected areas. This is largely because all transport projects create winners and losers . This is in part however because the project was perceived as being done to people, rather than done with people.


Two reasons are often given explaining why transparency lacks here.

The first is the commercial nature of the case. Many public endeavors here have a large private component. WestConnex, e.g., is ‘owned’ by the  Sydney Motorway Corporation, which is supposed to be sold off. So apparently business is sensitive to the terms of the profits being discussed publicly. It might be possible that lack of transparency maximizes resale value of the asset, and so benefits the public. This is hard to establish, however, since each asset is unique.

I am sure however the many bondholders of the many toll projects that have wound up bankrupt would have preferred more oversight along the way. Peer review (and public review) processes work better in an open environment. Many eyes make all bugs shallow. These infrastructure projects are not a minor contribution to science, where an individual scientist’s or journal’s reputation might be protected if wrong science is not made public, and it is in the public interest that facts be established before they are embossed with a journal’s mark . In contrast the object of review here is a very expensive public works project that needs oversight before the decision to accept/reject/modify. Oversight only achieves its aim if review happens before the decision is made. Many eyes are even more important.

The second cause for lack of transparency is Parliament, aligning the Executive and Legislature, which reduces the checks and balances I am familiar with in  American government. So the Parliamentary government can act without heeding opposition. And the unity of the party, and its majority status, help fast-track decision processes in-house.


* A feature concomitant with doing the business case after the decision was made in Australia is the design/build process. First a project is built, then it is designed. Ok, I exaggerate. First a sketch is drawn, then building starts, then the design is modified, and the building costs rise, and the design is modified again. Major project features are adopted midstream.