Review of the Shanghai Maglev

The Shanghai Maglev is departing the station. I just missed this train while figuring out how to get into the station.
The Shanghai Maglev is departing the station. I just missed this train while figuring out how to get into the station.

The most unique aspect of the transport scenery of Shanghai is the famous Maglev, providing service between Longyang Road, somewhere in Pudong, and the Shanghai-Pudong airport. Operating since 2003, it is a technological, if not economic, proof of concept that Maglev can function in revenue service. The ride is smooth, as can be seen on this video I shot looking out the side window. Because of the double paned glass and reflectivity, you can see some of me, and some of the iPhone camera reflected back, but you get the idea.  The speeds steadily increase, and than decrease, with no passenger discomfort. It is not especially loud.

The interior of the Shanghai Maglev. The load factor is low.
The interior of the Shanghai Maglev. The load factor is low.

On a Sunday afternoon, the train was far from full. And though I did not get to ride at the highest speed offered (430 m/h) (which would have required taking an earlier train), it was plenty fast at 300 km/h. The fare was a reasonable 50 yuan ($AU 10), though taxi would have been cheaper, and probably faster door-to-door given the ticketing and waiting times. The station is in the middle of nowhere (i.e. in the middle of future redevelopment), across from a big box shopping center. It runs parallel to a conventional metro line, which is slower, with stops, but more frequent. It does land you conveniently in the middle of the airport, between the terminals, so is useful from that perspective.

Maglev station platform. A metro train is visible in the distance (to the right).
Maglev station platform. A metro train is visible in the distance (to the right).

The first adventure was taking the taxi from my hotel  to the Maglev station. The taxi driver spoke no English, I spoke no Chinese, but he moved his arm really fast and said zoom-zoom, so he understood.

The second was actually finding where to be let out. This is not at all obvious, and we wound up spiralling into a place that sort of resembled a taxi drop-off point. I am not clear how passengers actually arrive, this could not have been it. I am guessing public transport, but the ‘landside’ layout of this airport was odd.

Otherwise, it was more like a small train station than an airport, except it required special ticketing. The ticketing vending machines had an English option, so that was straight-forward. The security was on par with the Metro, requiring a scan of bags you are carrying.

While undoubtedly there were a few transport tourists like myself, my sense is that some of the riders were regulars, finding it slightly more convenient than the alternative. Given that it was a slow time at the airport, the lack of demand on the MagLev may just reflect peaking patterns rather than avoidance.

All in all, a smooth convenient ride, akin to a monorail, which casual empiricism suggests will not be the technological path selected for fast surface transport. Even though it works, it has not been much replicated. If you are interested in transport, and in Shanghai, and it seems to be an option to go to or from the airport, you should try it. However in all likelihood, you will still need another mode of transport to get you to your destination or from your origin.

More photos here.

On Horns, Turn Signals, and Connected Vehicles

We have long had inter-vehicle connectivity. The means are slow and loud: the horn and the turn signal, as well as eye contact between nearby drivers. But they are widely used despite their minimal effectiveness.

Horns have a variety of purposes. In the US, the horn is most commonly used to express the following sentiments:

  • “Move you idiot“, for instance, when the light changed colour.
  • “You are cutting me off,” we might get in a collision, and my pressing the horn, while pressed far too late to avert said collision, releases some frustration.
  • “You bastard, you are in my right-of-way and I am too lazy to tap the brakes, but not too lazy to hit the horn” (Alternatively “I’m an asshole, and I want the world to know it”)

In developing countries, horns have other uses.

Traffic in Enshi
Traffic in Enshi
  • I’m changing lanes … not merely, “I am requesting permission to change lanes,” but the more active, “I’m changing lanes and you have been forewarned.”
  • “I’m coming around the sharp corner with little visibility, but sufficient audibility, at too high a speed to safely brake, and don’t care to reduce my speed to a safe speed, you have been forewarned.”

Turn Signals also have their uses. In developed countries, the turn signal indicates

  • “I’m would like to change lanes, if a gap opens up, I might take it.”

In developing countries, I have observed the turn signal, particularly at steep uphill grades indicating, as near as I can tell:

  • “You should change lanes. Really, I won’t be offended, I have a heavy load I am carrying up this hill and my vehicle cannot maintain speed, and there don’t seem to be any. oncoming cars right now, though I am not liable should there be one”


This dual usage of turn signals is analogous to the awful Minnesota expression “Can you borrow me some money” which is normatively incorrect ( with a clear enough meaning) and just grates on the ears. I borrow, you lend. I lend, you borrow.

It is sometimes argued that Connected Vehicles, with a real-time broadcast of a here-I-am message could replace the horn (HEAR! I AM!) and turn signal (see me! I am!, vocalised in a quiet Horton Hear’s a Who voice no louder than a clicking turn signal contact)., But this assumes CVs were universal, and pedestrians and bicyclists were connected too (or have simply been eliminated, Wall-E style). Short of that, the horn particularly, which is almost sure-fire in annoying walkers and bikers, remains relevant as a way of forewarning.

Now of course, an automated vehicle wouldn’t be (shouldn’t be) going around sharp corners at too high a speed, so AVs could eliminate excess noise through better behaviour. Horns in retrospect would also be eliminated. AVs could possibly infer the dual meaning of turn signals from context and vehicle behaviour. After visiting China, it is clear AVs would not work in the Wild West of Wuhan, but are much more feasible in modern Shanghai, where pedestrians and bicyclists are much more likely to be rule abiding. Certainly over time, as developing areas are civilised into the ways of modern motordom, this issue will diminish. But it needs to be kept in mind that the context shapes the effectiveness.

While urban noise levels will likely decrease with advances in technology, this is due to the automation, not connectivity.

I have long felt the solution to much noise in urban environments is to blast the horn inside the vehicle. That way, whenever someone slammed the horn, they would internalise much of the noise externality they create, leading to less noise production in the first place.

Driving on the wrong side of the road

I rented a Toyota Corolla with a local “carsharing” operator GoGet on Saturday. This was for the sole purpose of driving on the wrong side of the road. I figured it was time to get some behind the wheel experience, with no family members sharing the car with me. I managed to live in London for 10 months, and Sydney for over 2 months without getting behind the wheel on the wrong side, but I plan a road trip next week, so practice helps.

I didn’t turn into the wrong lane, killed no one, so overall it was probably a success. But I still had two issues with driving that I had not thought about before.

  1. I kept hitting the windshield wiper instead of the turn signal. The turn signal is on the right side of the steering wheel (as opposed to the left in a car with left side steering like in the US). So the steering wheel is on the opposite side, and the turn signal is reversed as you might think it should be. It is thus operated with the right rather than left hand which requires unlearning. Note gas and brakes are on the same position (gas on the right, brake to its left). So it is an imperfect mirror experience.
  2. I cut left turns too sharp, and the tire might have touched the curb. As far as I could tell, I was properly in my lane when driving, though cutting the curb indicates I may have been too far to the left on multi-lane roads, no-one honked at me.
I did not use this Hertz Rental Car, but it is a picture of a car about the same size as the GoGet car I did use. Note that it is parked in a special space, which is how Sydney reserves spaces for carsharing.

The difficulty is learning to drive while also learning to navigate, in a car you quickly leave the area that you are familiar with from walking about, and are in new areas. I drove down to La Perouse, mostly via the Anzac Parade (where the second LRT in Sydney is being constructed) just as some place to go, though I had never been there. I strongly believe learning to drive and learning to navigate should not be done simultaneously. (Just as learning to drink should occur before learning to drive).  Yes I had my cell phone map and the silky navigation voice telling me what to do. Unfortunately the car did not have an in-vehicle navigation system, which as bad as they are, at least display a map. Since Sydney is not a grid system, directionality is not obvious.

Aside from the GoGet sign-up experience (they required an Australian mobile phone number to sign up, and I didn’t get one til a few weeks ago since my US plan worked fine for everything else, and was better for international roaming in places like China), everything else seemed to work fine. GoGet is more of a station-based, Zipcar like experience, but it is far more popular than Zipcar was in Minneapolis, so there was a car a block away rather than a mile and a half. Rental durations are determined in advance, though can be extended. So 2 hours was about $21 + $0.40/km (rates depend on the plan you choose, which trade off fixed costs of membership for variable cost per trip), which at 25 km round trip gives a driving lesson cost of $31. These rates seem high, and requires careful planning of trip duration, so I suspect carsharing will be a rare occurrence, and transit and taxi (Uber/ridehailing) more frequent.

Why Looking at Crash Stats Alone Doesn’t Tell the Whole Story About Pedestrian Safety | Streetsblog

Stephen Miller at Streetsblog writes Why Looking at Crash Stats Alone Doesn’t Tell the Whole Story About Pedestrian Safety: New research from Minneapolis shows that there is safety in numbers for pedestrians.

This map shows the number of crashes involving pedestrians in relation to the number of people who walk at a given location. Via Murphy, Levinson, and Owen

This map shows the number of crashes involving pedestrians in relation to the number of people who walk at a given location. Via Murphy, Levinson, and Owen

Some intersections are riskier to cross than others, but looking at the number of pedestrian injuries alone doesn’t tell the whole story. A new study from Minneapolis combines crash data with pedestrian counts to deliver a more nuanced picture of traffic dangers for people on foot. Among the findings: There’s safety in numbers for pedestrians.

Using data from the city government, University of Minnesota researcher Brendan Murphy and his co-authors looked at 448 intersections where both pedestrian counts and automobile counts were available, then cross-referenced that data with the city’s crash reports. They found a strong negative correlation between the number of pedestrians and the risk of being hit by a car.

While the study found people are less likely to be struck by a driver at locations where lots of people walk, it does not establish causation, Murphy says. “We don’t have good statistical evidence to show that if a place is safe, people will walk — or in the other direction, that if people are walking, they make the place safer,” he says. “I personally think it’s a bit of both.”

Per person, pedestrian-rich areas downtown and near the University of Minnesota pose a low risk for people walking, though they have a high absolute number of pedestrian crashes. Quieter intersections in more residential neighborhoods also pose a lower risk.

A few streets jump off the map as high-risk areas, like Lake Street, which runs east-west across South Minneapolis, and Penn Avenue in North Minneapolis. Both are used by a steady if not enormous number of pedestrians, but are meant first and foremost to move lots of cars. “We can ask, ‘How are those roads designed?’” Murphy says. “They are two lanes each way, no shoulder or bike lane.”

The study looked at all crashes involving pedestrians, not just injuries and fatalities, in order to include enough data points to reach reliable conclusions. It also looked at the stats from 2000 to 2013 in aggregate, rather than year-by-year, so it doesn’t take into account intersection redesigns or major changes like the opening of a light rail line. If there were enough data, Murphy says, “it would be really nice to do a year-by-year analysis.”

The study did not consider the relationship between pedestrian risk and income or race, but the authors say that needs attention. “Equity is a very big problem in terms of pedestrian safety and poor and minority people are getting killed by cars at much higher rates,” Murphy said.

The authors hope their research will lead to better measurements of pedestrian safety and methods to improve it. In 2016, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s four-year strategic plan set a goal of reducing fatalities for pedestrians and cyclists to 0.15 per 100 million vehicle miles traveled by 2016. But that’s the wrong way to look at the problem.

“If we frame pedestrian deaths in terms of VMT, we’re really framing it in terms of automobiles themselves and car traffic,” said Murphy. “We should be focused on reducing pedestrian deaths as a percentage of the pedestrian population.”

There’s also a need for better data collection. Cities and states regularly collect standardized data on car and truck traffic, but there’s no standard for non-motorized users. This data is often collected manually and its reliability varies from city to city. In Minneapolis, three counts throughout the day at each intersection were added together to create a six-hour total. Other cities have different methods.

“Ideally we would like to have our cities wired up and know how many pedestrians are crossing each intersection,” Murphy says. “We need to focus in on the pedestrian population and really ask ourselves, where are they really experiencing undue burdens of risk and what can we do about it?”

Call for Papers: Transportation System Analysis for Better Policy-Making

Journal of Transportation

Special Issue Call for Papers

Transportation System Analysis for Better Policy-Making

The rise of shared mobility, manifested by services such as car-sharing, ridesourcing, bike-sharing and crowdsourcing delivery, is fundamentally changing the landscape of travel and transport. As the vehicle automation and connectivity technology matures, these shared mobility services could eventually evolve into a powerful alternative to the current model of car ownership. Moreover, the collective ownership, being more rational and having a greater bargaining power for infrastructure improvement, may favor electricity as the primary fuel due to much lower operating and environmental costs. These three trends, namely sharing, automation and electrification, have occupied much of the ongoing research efforts in the field of transportation in recent years. As researchers begin to engineer the next generation of analytical tools tailored to these emerging conditions, a daunting challenge is how to apply these tools to properly inform public policies pertinent to design, operations and management of the future transportation systems. Because policies typically aim to achieve certain societal goals by influencing human behaviors, policy making processes must anticipate complex policy-human interaction and take their effects into account. It is this particular challenge that the present Special Issue of Transportation is focused on. Specifically, submissions that broadly fit the following profile are most welcome:

  1. Addressing a system application related to one (or more) of the following themes as explained above: sharing, automation and electrification;
  2. Employing a quantitative system analysis tool. Network models is probably the most obvious example, although other system analysis tools may be accepted as the editors see fit; and
  3. Considering policy-behavior interactions in the tool and/or exploring policy implications in the analysis.

Important dates:

  • Special issue article type becomes available in EES: October 1, 2017
  • Submission deadline – December 1st, 2017
  • Author notification of first round of reviews – March 1st, 2018
  • Author notification of second round of reviews (if needed) – September 1st, 2018
  • Special issue completed –January 31, 2019

Guest Editors

Yu (Marco) Nie
Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering
Northwestern University
Evanston, Illinois, USA

Xuegang (Jeff) Ban
Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering University of Washington
Seattle, WA 98115

Amanda Stathopoulos
Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering
Northwestern University
Evanston, Illinois, USA

On Blood Alcohol Content

Candace Lightner, founder of Mothers Against Drunk Drivers recently published a counter-intuitive op-ed against lowering the blood alcohol content (BAC).

Hopefully everyone agrees that if there were fewer drunk drivers on the road, there would be fewer deaths from drunk driving. Hopefully everyone also agrees that BAC is correlated with impairment. The blood alcohol content limit, currently 0.08 in the US, is 0.05 in many other countries of the world. Should the US lower the BAC?1280px-Ljubljana_car_crash_2013

The argument against is that pulling over safe drivers (say in a police screenline, where all drivers on a road are pulled over and briefly tested) takes police resources that could be better spent pulling over observed dangerous drivers. Lightner writes: “Every dollar spent enforcing DUI laws against sober drivers is one not spent on getting the worst offenders off our roads.” Perhaps 2 drivers at 0.05 BAC are less dangerous than 1 driver at 0.10, so spend the time finding that driver.

But such police screenlines have the effect not just immediately about arresting people in violation of the law, and also as warning, reminder, and deterrent against future alcohol (and drug) impaired driving. To say the resources are a waste misses a major point.

International experience shows most other developed countries have significantly lower crash and fatality rates than the US, and they have 0.05 or lower BAC. Perhaps the US should just copy their traffic laws lock, stock, and barrel. Researchers have estimated ‘an additional 538 lives could be saved each year if the United States reduced the limit to 0.05,’ (Wagenaar et al. 2007)

Casual drinkers are a problem. Social drinking is a problem. I don’t care if you drink at home and don’t bother anyone (aside from the health insurance claims you impose on society from the damage you do to yourself), but when you drive a car, you endanger others. And because you are impaired, you don’t have the reasoning abilities to realise this.

The rules of the road should not only punish, but also provide a strong deterrent, which includes arrest and punishment even if you didn’t actually kill someone this time. Until robots fully rule the roads in 25 years, possibly another million Americans will be killed in car crashes. We can avoid tens of thousands of them with lower BAC limits.

The scientific evidence on this is fairly clear: Fell and Voas (2006) write:


This scientific review provides a summary of the evidence regarding the benefits of reducing the illegal blood alcohol concentration (BAC) limit for driving and providing a case for enacting a .05 BAC limit.


Fourteen independent studies in the United States indicate that lowering the illegal BAC limit from .10 to .08 has resulted in 5–16% reductions in alcohol-related crashes, fatalities, or injuries. However, the illegal limit is .05 BAC in numerous countries around the world. Several studies indicate that lowering the illegal per se limit from .08 to .05 BAC also reduces alcohol-related fatalities. Laboratory studies indicate that impairment in critical driving functions begins at low BACs and that most subjects are significantly impaired at .05 BAC. The relative risk of being involved in a fatal crash as a driver is 4 to 10 times greater for drivers with BACs between .05 and .07 compared to drivers with .00 BACs.


There is strong evidence in the literature that lowering the BAC limit from .10 to .08 is effective, that lowering the BAC limit from .08 to .05 is effective, and that lowering the BAC limit for youth to .02 or lower is effective. These law changes serve as a general deterrent to drinking and driving and ultimately save lives.


On Real Estate in Sydney

As a new arrival, I have been studying the Sydney real estate market with dismay. To find housing, one typically goes through either or Domain is a spinout of the Fairfax newspapers (the Sydney Morning Herald, The Age) but is now bigger than both. is an offspring of the rival Murdoch newspapers.

A panorama of the development near Green Square in Sydney
A panorama of the development near Green Square in Sydney

The first thing one notices about Sydney are the exorbitant prices.  Australia has not had a recession for 25 years, (though economists have predicted at least 10 of the last 3 recessions) and prices have steadily marched upward (until the last couple of months at any rate). People have come to believe in the inviolability of above normal profits in real estate investments. And obviously owners in the system hope this to be true, so there is motivated reasoning.

On the one hand, land, they aren’t making any more of it. And there is a large desire for individuals from Asia to buy real estate in Australia for a variety of reasons (as a form of wealth insurance by investing in a stable capitalist country with rule of law, to help children immigrate, just because they believe in the inevitability of ever rising prices. Further, there are politicians, presumably supported by their mates in the real estate industry, who will do anything to keep this game going, including letting people borrow from their Supa, their retirement scheme, to invest in more real estate. Sydney is certainly a desirably place, and the most desirable parts, with the highest accessibility and best views, are scarcer than inland areas.

On the other hand, most of Australia is pretty empty. In response to demands, supply is increasing in the city, there are cranes everywhere, and residential new starts are at historic highs. This should soak up the demand and, if in fact supply rises faster than demand, cause prices to drop some. Also, it is cheaper to rent than to pay the interest on a comparably valued house, much less own (excluding various tax gambits, like negative gearing)

My own view is this is a bit Bubbly. It seems like a Ponzi scheme or musical chairs, and you don’t want to be the last one entering a Ponzi scheme.  Australia has a very long coastline, other cities are less expensive, and the amenities that provide value are steadily being spatially distributed.

So we are renting, for now, perhaps forever. My sense is that capital would be better invested elsewhere (or in cash – since the stock market is overvalued as well) than in such an obvious bubble. When conditions change, we will reconsider.

The real estate market differs from the US in a few ways. Stamp duty (about 5%) on property sales is a large source of government revenue (while normal rates are lower). (Notably, this is a weak form of land value capture, especially since much of the value is in the land rather than the structure). Also there is a single land registry which makes title search pretty trivial.

Karen Strojek writes about the Torrens Title System:

The story of Torrens and the Real Property Act of 1858 is fairly well known. Torrens took an interest in reforming South Australia’s chaotic deeds-based land system when an acquaintance lost money on a property, owing to a faulty title.

With help and advice from competent friends, and a sustained campaign for conveyancing reform, Torrens won the seat of Adelaide in the first parliamentary election of 1856. His Real Property Act came into effect in 1858. Soon afterwards, Torrens resigned from government to run the new land titles registry.

Under the new system, the location and dimensions of each land parcel were to be surveyed and registered. Every new land owner received a secure grant of title, guaranteed by the Crown.

Recently there has been discussion of privatising this database. It is not clear what the value added of the private sector is here.


Most rentals appear to be handled by Real Estate Agents (while in the US, it appears far more owner-driven). The agents will list the property on the above-noted websites. This ad will include a few photos (with fisheye lenses to make it look bigger) and not include a floorplan because that would benefit the renter not the landlord (unless it is a large unit). So you can’t easily compare units before you go and see them, which is exceedingly annoying.  Even for sale properties,   which do have a floorplan, they often don’t include gross floorspace.

The Agents then set an open-house window of 15 minutes, and wait for the hordes to flood in. Strangely, many showings are scheduled simultaneously (typically Saturday morning) so people are racing around looking at properties. So you get to kick the tires for a very short period. If you are interested in one or more properties, you apply. Fortunately there is an online application that is common to most agents called 1form. Unfortunately there are competitors to 1form, so it is not the 1form to rule them all. Agents make up nonsense about it not working with their system, but I think the agencies don’t want to pay the associated fees or higher a coder.

The whole process is Dynamic Optimization. You must apply simultaneously to multiple properties, and keep looking until you put down money. If you don’t, someone will grab the property out from under you.  The agents screen the applicants and the owners than look at the applicants and then you are notified. If you are interested, you must then put down a non-refundable Holding Fee. This will apply to rent if you ultimately sign, and takes the unit off the market until the contracts are signed (or not). Obviously you don’t want to put deposits on more than one property, since then you will forfeit money.


The process of buying houses differs as well. The property is listed on the above websites. There are a few viewing times. And then there is an auction. In the US an auction is an indication of a distressed or foreclosed property. Here it is the most common way of selling.  (Though you can make an offer before the property is auctioned). The auction process seems to work for the benefit of the seller, playing on people’s emotions and excitement. It reduces the work of the agent, and clears the market faster. A standard metric that is reported about the market is auction clearances.

Bachelor of Engineering Honours (Civil), University of Sydney

The University of Sydney just prepared a video on our Bachelor of Engineering Honours (Civil) program. The video is below. …


Civil engineering is a broad profession that combines functional solutions with creativity and innovation to improve society. Civil engineers are responsible for the design and construction of such things as buildings, towers and transport infrastructure in addition to the design and management of gas and water systems and irrigation systems.

Our Bachelor of Engineering Honours (Civil) degree provides you with a suite of embedded technical and professional skills to create infrastructure that improves lives throughout the world.

Throughout this four-year degree you will study a series of core units as you master the foundations of civil engineering, with the option of then specialising in an optional major, including construction management, environmental engineering, geotechnical engineering, structures, transport engineering or humanitarian engineering – the first of its kind in Australia. You will have the opportunity to gain invaluable hands-on industry experience through internships as well as the option to utilise your knowledge in a engineering fieldwork trip to a developing country.

For more:…

Evaluating the Safety In Numbers effect for pedestrians at urban intersections

Recently published:

Average annual 6-hour pedestrian count by location, Minneapolis
Average annual 6-hour pedestrian count by location, Minneapolis


  • Collision risk at 448 intersections in the city of Minneapolis, MN was assessed.
  • The Safety In Numbers phenomenon was observed for both pedestrians and cars.
  • Maps of per-pedestrian crash rates inform discussion of safe vs. unsafe city areas.


Assessment of collision risk between pedestrians and automobiles offers a powerful and informative tool in urban planning applications, and can be leveraged to inform proper placement of improvements and treatment projects to improve pedestrian safety. Such assessment can be performed using existing datasets of crashes, pedestrian counts, and automobile traffic flows to identify intersections or corridors characterized by elevated collision risks to pedestrians. The Safety In Numbers phenomenon, which refers to the observable effect that pedestrian safety is positively correlated with increased pedestrian traffic in a given area (i.e. that the individual per-pedestrian risk of a collision decreases with additional pedestrians), is a readily observed phenomenon that has been studied previously, though its directional causality is not yet known. A sample of 488 intersections in Minneapolis were analyzed, and statistically-significant log-linear relationships between pedestrian traffic flows and the per-pedestrian crash risk were found, indicating the Safety In Numbers effect. Potential planning applications of this analysis framework towards improving pedestrian safety in urban environments are discussed.


  • Pedestrians;
  • Safety;
  • Collisions;
  • Urban planning