The Prime Minister Responds

The UK PM emails road pricing signatories, those who signed the petition opposing pricing. His letter is interesting from a number of perspectives, and was clearly written in part by transportation professionals.
However there is an (intentional?) misrepresentation of the induced demand problem hidden in the text.
If it is the “beginning ,not the end of the debate”, it has not got off to a good start. There are several elements missing from the context, though perhaps they will be brought back in:
1) Hypothecation (the British term for earmarking) – money raised from transportation should be spent on transportation (or its impacts). When talking about building facilities the PM says “Tackling congestion in this way would also be extremely costly, requiring substantial sums to be diverted from other services such as education and health, or increases in taxes.” Implying more money for roads from the same gas tax is less money for something else. This is because in the UK the petrol (gas) tax is used as a cash cow to cross-subsidize other sectors of the economy that should be paid for out of general revenue or otherwise. If people instead saw transportation taxes/tolls/prices as paying for transportation services, there would be more readiness to do so.
2) Local decision making – most travel is local, decision making about tolls and pricing should be local (though obviously there are positive network externalities associated with choosing a common technological framework).

Ghost town

In a less than overly popular move, Ken Livingstone has implemented the western extension of the Congestion Charge, as noted in the GuardianProtest greets congestion charge’s westward push BBC devoted almost the entire half-hour of local news last night to the topic.
Several things to note, though the evidence is anecdotal. First, students are on break this week, so traffic levels are lighter. That said, the buses seemed to make much better time.
Second, it is being billed more for environmental than congestion-relief reasons now, so the nominal motive has changed (the underlying motive, punish the car and raise money remains). Paying lip service to carbon reduction is now politically correct, whether or not this is the best way to achieve that end.
Third, the national government’s long-term road pricing scheme is becoming very unpopular with everyone but the environmentalists, as the public rightly sees it as a way to collect more money, rather than manage traffic and improve transportation. Perhaps hypothecation should be restored in England. The road pricing debate is spilling over on the congestion charge. Privacy issues are also re-emerging as critical.
Some of the roads in the old zone were empty enough during the morning that it felt like a ghost town walking around, all the cars are parked, no vehicles are moving. It is not quite that level in the western extension, though better than it had been … but again, this week is break.
I do believe a major mistake was made in letting residents of the west get to use roads in the east as if they were local. This will raise traffic levels in the east. A zone system would be much fairer, with perhaps some discount for those in the west. I am sure there were political reasons for this.
If the zone gets extended further, some form of zoning will be necessary, or it will lose all effectiveness.
It will be intersting to see the final analysis on traffic levels. I suspect the government lowballed the official congestion reduction estimates of 4 percent to be able to claim victory when a greater reduction occurs.

Road Pricing Petition Redux

A few weeks ago I noted the anti-pricing petition in London. That petition now has over 1 million signatures (about 2% of the entire country), and the government proposed policy looks like it might be in trouble …Pressure mounts over road tolls
Top-down schemes like this without the support of the public do not seem like they are the right way to proceed.
— dml

Once More into the Aisles

The New York Times assesses the state of rail in Britain: British Commuters Cry, Once More Into the Aisles!
Anecdotally this is a complaint heard often about the poor state of the train network. I suspect the complaint is perennial.

Road rage: Someone is unhappy with traffic enforcement

From the Evening Standard: Three injured in new letter-bomb attack. This is the fourth in a wave of letter-bomb attacks, one attacked Capita, which administers the London Congestion Charge, one Speed Check Services, which does traffic enforcement, and one today at DVLA, the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Administration.
It recalls the The Mad Bomber of New York City in the 1940s, though the pace is much faster in this case.

Chelsea Tractors must pay to park in Richmond

Another London transport topic that has made its way across the Atlantic, The Canadian Press (via Breitbart) reports: London suburb to charge drivers parking fees based on emissions. Richmond upon Thames, a Borough of London, wants to charge £300 for cars to park in front of their houses if the cars are of models that are classified as big polluters (the local term: Chelsea Tractors).
The irony is that they are charging the cars when they are not polluting (i.e. when they are parked) rather than when they are.
Again, the technology could relatively easily be assembled to charge cars based on how much they pollute, that would be in the long run both more fair and more efficient. Robert Harley was doing tests on the measurements of this more than 10 years ago at Berkeley, see this paper for an example. That would just need to be tied to transponders or license plate matches (a la electronic toll collection or the London Congestion Charging scheme) and a price developed.
The continued use of second (or third) best solutions when much better ones are available is unnecessary.

Its *global* warming, not *local* warming

From today’s Strib: Legislators told to act fast to slow global warming
“Legislators told to act fast to slow global warming
Science, morality and politics came together in a rare, bicameral session. Minnesota could be a much hotter and probably drier place in the next 70 to 90 years, with an altered or dwindling forest, Kansas-like summers and Illinois-like winters. But that’s if Minnesotans don’t seize opportunities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions now, three scientists and explorer Will Steger told a rare assembly of legislators Tuesday. More than 90 senators and representatives from committees on the environment, energy and transportation — nearly half the elected body — gathered in the House chamber for an informational session on global warming that included state Catholic and Lutheran leaders casting the issue as a moral and ethical challenge.”
The point that is being missed is that even if Minnesotans seize every opportunity, no measurable change could possibly come of it unless most of the rest of the world does as well. That is why it is called *global* warming. Further, if Minnesota missed every opportunity, but the rest of the world didn’t, Minnesota could free ride its way to the supposed benefits of avoiding global warming while skirting the costs.
[Frankly, I don’t want religious leaders explaining science (or the ethics of science) to the state legislature, it reminds me too much of Kansas .]
(Leaving aside whether a warmer Minnesota, if that were the outcome, is actually a bad thing for Minnesotans).
Despite the feel-good nature of such convocations, the requirement of local media and local politicians to have a local spin on stories (“Global warming, can it happen here?”) and the “think global act local” ethic, a set of incentives for good behavior, and a contract (constitution) enforcing them, are necessary to obtain the desired outcome. People behave in the community interest not out of personal good will but out of incentives, otherwise we wouldn’t need constitutions and laws and jails. Advocates should read James M. Buchanan’s: The Calculus of Consent on the matter.

Britain doesn’t have an Americans with Disabilities Act

Great Britain doesn’t have an Americans with Disabilities Act. Now, you may say, why would Britain care about Americans with Disabilities. What I mean by this are that conditions for those with disabilities in Britain seem much harsher than in the US. In particular, I will note the public transport system, especially the rail system.
To be clear, Britain does have a
Disability Discrimination Act of 1995. It is just that the requirements that are made of extant systems are much more modest than the US.
The reason I note this is not, fortunately, because anyone in my household is physically disabled, rather because as I and my wife take our 2 year old son out in a stroller, we notice problems that just don’t appear in the US. In part this is because we don’t use public transport much in the US, but if we were to use rail transport, there would be an elevator to get to the platform at every station. Even where it would not be difficult to provide a ramp, a short staircase is often the only alternative. Sometimes, a long staircase is required, leading to the stroller carry (which is easier than unbuckling and rebuckling, especially if our son is sleeping).
A quick review of the TfL Underground map shows the extent of the problem, only stations with the wheelchair have lifts or are level with the ground.
One could argue this is about economic efficiency, retrofitting hundreds of stations would be expensive. But the relevant value here is not efficiency but equity and inclusion, if economic efficiency were the criteria, one would make almost no accomodations for the disabled.
This is one more case where the buses beat the trains. Buses are a short enough step that manipulating a stroller is not too difficult. They also have better accomodation for wheelchairs than trains, though in four months here, I have only seen one wheelchair on a bus.
“Barely hospitable” is the phrase my wife uses to describe London. Many Underground patrons are quite helpful in lifting one end of the stroller while one of us has the other, it is the infrastructure that is not designed for anyone who who is not fully mobile.
Most of the sidewalks do have curb cuts, though the rough surfaces make wheeling along them less than optimal, but not impossible.
Finally, one must ask about the omnipresent urban slogan: “Mind the Gap”. Why can’t trains and platforms be level? London has had over a century to get this right on even the deep-tube lines. I understand that the trains in the deep-tubes (e.g. Bakerloo, Piccadilly, Northern) differ from those on the older (e.g. Metropolitan, District, Hamersmith & City) lines, but how hard could it be to make the stations level with the trains they do serve, to minimize if not eliminate the gap. For all of the human energy devoted to installing Mind the Gap signs and making the everpresent announcements, rectifying the original problem would have been warranted, and probably less expensive.

The Trouble with TRB

The Transportation Research Board , a unit of the National Academies, hosts an annual conference in Washington, DC every January. This year attendance exceeded 11,000 (both professionals and academics), so I was told when attending last week. It overflows three of the largest hotels in the city, and so must from some respects be seen as a success.
One trouble that TRB has is quality control. The organization is divided into committees. Some committees have strong leadership and a high volume of paper submission (with a scarce number of slots), and so are able to exert quality control on the papers that are presented at the conference and ultimately published in the Transportation Research Record. Other committees don’t, dragging down the average quality, and discouraging some from submitting research to TRB.
A second, related problem that TRB has is its low citation rate compared to other journals. Few papers published in other journals cite articles published in TRB.
An advantage that TRB’s publications have is their open-ness, I retain full copyright on anything published there, and TRB doesn’t make the same claims on my intellectual content that some for-profit publishers do.
However, TRB has yet to make its publications freely available online, continuing to produce paper copies and charge for electronic copies (except to those participating in the conference).
There is no faster way of increasing availability of content, and making it useful, citable, and thus cited, then making it freely available online. The physics community has learned this with arXiv.org, a e-print archive, described here. TRB would be a perfect host for a similar institution in transportation research, if it could only find the imagination to host a free, publicly-accessible pre-print archive (basically the conference submissions, but other papers as well), that was properly indexed. The physics journals accept papers that are hosted on arXiv , so later publication is not a problem.
The journal Transportation Research Record is a separate problem. Credibility is established through history. It is not that most TRR papers are wrong, just that they are not given credit because TRR does not act as an effective enough filter against the mundane. In part this is because TRR tries to be all things to all transportation, each committee gets its slots. Other journals within transportation tend to specialize, while TRR’s sister publication Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences is much more selective, though relatively general within the sciences.
It should be noted that PNAS “is notable for its policy of making research articles freely available online to everyone 6 months after publication”, which helps increase readership and citations.
TRB staff seems to be compaining of recent budget cuts. Without discussing other aspects of the organization, but focusing on TRR and the conference if the organization cannot obtain value from the research that thousands of volunteers produce (for free) and review (for free), and could be distributed for free (minus some server and bandwidth costs), while charging over $200 per head for a conference attended by over 11,000 people, something is wrong in its management structure.