With rail, you know where you’re going, … NOT

In the previous entry “On ‘A Streetcar Named Development'”, I noted ‘The more important concern is revealed by the closing quote from Teresa Wernecke, director of the Downtown Minneapolis Transportation Management Organization. ‘“With rail, you know where you’re going,? Wernecke said.’
I am here to tell you, that in London, on rail, you don’t know where you are going. Yesterday, returning home from Imperial College on the District Line, I boarded the Wimbledon-bound train at the South Kensington Station. The District Line roughly forms an 3–C Shaped network (all distorted though), The Edgware Road branch and the City branch come together at Earl’s Court (the two branches of the “C”), and then lines split again for Wimbledon, Richmond, and Ealing (the three prongs of the the “3”).
Well, before the train reaches Gloucester Road station, the conductor announces the train has been redirected to Ealing Broadway, and all passengers bound for Wimbledon (or points in-between) needed to change trains at Earl’s Court.
While this is not a big deal, walking from one train on the platform to another across the platform, it created a lot of confusion. Native Londoners were asking me (a newbie) what was going on.
Those dynamically rerouting the trains had a good reason for this (another Wimbledon-bound train was already at the Earl’s Court platform, one for Ealing must have been held up somewhere upstream), trying to balance service or flow of trains.
If this had only happened once, one might say, “that’s strange”. But in two months of semi-regular commuting this is the third time this has happened. I missed the announcement once and had to backtrack. This does not happen with buses.
The point is that (A) when you have a complicated system, this creates opportunities to dynamically reroute (on a single line system, the exercise would be meaningless), and (B) there is not something inherently more secure or informative about rail over bus, and may be found more on rail than on buses (I have yet to be on a bus which suddenly changed which route it was traveling on).

On “A Streetcar Named Development”, Streetcars, Buses, and Signs

In this week’s Downtown Journal Online, an article “A Streetcar Named Development” discusses the potential for streetcars for Minneapolis.
Streetcars would be the third distinct rail technology that the Twin Cities would have introduced in the course of a decade, following LRT and commuter rail, and of course bus remains. This technology proliferation is one of several issues that has been inadequately addressed. The greater the number of distinct technologies used, the lower the economies of scale that can be achieved with any one of them. While they serve somewhat different markets, they also serve overlapping markets, yet no consideration was given to using technology A in market B.
The more important concern is revealed by the closing quote from Teresa Wernecke, director of the Downtown Minneapolis Transportation Management Organization. ‘“With rail, you know where you’re going,? Wernecke said.’ The implication is that with bus you don’t. Why should that be?
The answer is the under-investment in buses over the past 50 years, in particular the lack of signage. Staff I have spoken with at the Metropolitan Council seem to think it would be too expensive to have simple signs which actually told you what bus stopped where and when (since the schedules apparently change). But it is not too expensive to deploy 3 new rail systems to make up for the institutional inadequecies of Metro Transit’s bus operations.
To illustrate, compare this typical bus stop sign from Minneapolis
Minneapolis Bus Stop
With this one from London
London Bus Stop
While this sign certainly does not solely explain London’s higher transit ridership, it helps considerably. The F helps orient you from which stop (among many), which are all shown on a map. The sign tells you where you are and where the buses go, and which buses go there. The schedule shows you the frequency (or schedule) of buses. Further there are maps at every stop, along with schedules.
It might surprise people to know, but bus mode share in London (18%) is as high as Underground and Surface Rail combined (17%) according to Transport for London.
Other factors include traveler information, designated bus lanes, frequent shelters, etc. But underlying this is the attitude that buses should be given full support as a transit mode.
It is too bad Minneapolis is choosing to throw money at streetcars at $30 million per mile and provide no additional service rather than using those scarce resources to create a world-class bus system.
— dml

IT Conversations

My talk in May at Mesh Forum on the Economics of Transportation Networks is now online at IT Conversations.

The World is Your Oyster

A prospective visitor asks: “What do you use for public transit–oyster card? bus/train passes? Are you zone 2 or 3? we are thinking 7 day pass”
The Oyster card is a marvel of technology.
We use the Oyster card with cash (not Travelcard) and automatically top-it-up with cash when it falls below £5.00 (it is automagically debited from our bank account).
We are Zone 2 (Putney Bridge is the nearest tube stop, Putney railway station is the nearest train stop). The buses are flat fare throughout the city. The national rail system is inconsistently on Oyster, but all of the buses and tubes are, and it works well, and is guaranteed to be as cheap as the one-day Travelcard alternative (it has automatic price capping so if your total one day travel exceeds what a day travelcard would be, you only pay that) assuming you don’t use national rail. Also there is bus price-capping, so if you spend more than £3 on bus travel, the rest of your bus travel is free that day. The buses work very well now in the central city with the congestion charge taking out most of the private vehicles. They are still slowed by excess traffic in Kensington and Chelsea (and other areas), but the congestion charge is expanding to Kensington next year. The bus frequency is high and the signage excellent (especially compared to the Twin Cities).
Apparently the three day Travelcard might be slightly cheaper depending on your usage if you stay in zones 1-2. If you are planning on going beyond that, the three day travel card price = 3 * the one day travel card price. (Heathrow is in Zone 6, Gatwick is not Oyster-compliant, you still need special tickets for the Gatwick Express). The Travelcard is also useful if you are using National rail within the city (we seldom do), as National rail is not fully Oysterized.
The seven-day travel card for Zones 1-6 is £41, for Zones 1-2 it is £22.20. In principle this is a discount over the maximum daily (as it should be). However, on my daily travels throughout the city, I wind up spending a little over £20 per week (but not every day involves travel by tube, and some of the travel is off-peak). As tourists you may spend more (say up to £6.00 per day for 2 tube and 2 bus segments per day, in which case a Travelcard is much cheaper) I stay mostly within zones 1-2 (except for Heathrow). (Note travel originating and destined for Zone 2 may be cheaper than Zone 1 to Zone 2, even if you pass through zone 1 to get there, depending on the presence of alternative routes). You can always get the seven-day travel card on Oyster and add cash for travel outside Zones 1-6, it is supposed to be smart enough to charge the right amount (I have not tested this particular claim).
It does cost £3 to get the card itself, but it pays for itself in 4 bus segments or 2 underground segments compared to cash tickets typically. You can put the electronic Travelcard on the Oyster card, or just top the Oyster card up with cash.
Oyster cards are sold at most (all?) tube stations and many convenience stores.
Oyster also has some associated coupons (which we have yet to exploit), and you can get refunded the cash balance when you leave if you want.
My suggestion is get an Oyster card and put a seven-day zone 1-2 travel card on it along with some cash if you plan to take the Piccadilly Line from/to Heathrow. If you wind up spending more, you can top up while you are here. It will still be good when you leave (my guess is the technology is stable for about a decade … this is London so there will probably be Oyster readers a century from now, however your particular card may deteriorate somehow), so you can bring it when you return to London
While the technology is clear, the fare structure is still quite complicated, as befits a system this large and convoluted.
The details are here
— dml

Review of The Transportation Experience

Richard Morrill’s review of The Transportation Experience appears in the most recent issue of Journal of Regional Science, Vol. 36, p.993.

Transport without Control

In an article from Spiegel Online:Controlled Chaos: European Cities Do Away with Traffic Signs Hans Monderman was able to get some press again for his idea of eliminating traffic signs.
The idea is this, eliminating signs forces drivers to be more careful, and therefore safer (they are less likely to hit someone). It also makes them slower, and therefore safer (they do less damage once they hit someone).
This is an interesting notion perhaps appropriate in some contexts (the street in front of my house e.g.). I do not believe it is a universally-applicable notion however (and I am not claiming Monderman does either).
The hierarchy of roads serves two purposes. One is access to land. I need a street in front of my property to get to and from my property (otherwise I am landlocked and require aircraft, tunnels, or boats). This street in residential areas is designed to be relatively slow moving, allowing travelers to reach their final destination (or leave their origin).
The second purpose is movement, I want to be able to go long distances between places at a low cost (time, money, etc.), and roads (e.g. highways) are important for this as well. Roads designed exclusively for this purpose include interstate highways, which are grade-separated and limited access.
The problem lies especially in roads that serve dual purposes, where non-locals want to move quickly, while locals want people to move slowly (or better yet, not at all except for the locals). Managing these roads requires especially creative solutions that are in many cases.
However, one needs to think about what problems traffic controls solved in the first place, why were they invented and deployed. A congested intersection without control, or with stop sign control, moves many fewer people per hour than one with traffic lights. If your objective is moving people, this is an important consideration.
Interestingly his ideas are supported both by liberatarians

  • as well as greens

  • Review of The Transportation Experience

    There was a recent review of The Transportation Experience: Garrison and Levinson, which appears in Berkeley’s ITS Review.
    (Corrected link Oct 02, 2006).

    On air on KPCC

    I was briefly on a segment this morning about California High Speed Rail on 89.3 KPCC | AirTalk hosted by Larry Mantle . The segment lasted 20 minutes, though I was only talked to for about 3 sentences.

    A Tax on Gore: Truth and Carbon Taxes,

    Al Gore, in a recent speech at New York University about the appropriate response to global climate change said:

    “For the last fourteen years, I have advocated the elimination of all payroll taxes – including those for social security and unemployment compensation – and the replacement of that revenue in the form of pollution taxes – principally on CO2. The overall level of taxation would remain exactly the same. It would be, in other words, a revenue neutral tax swap. But, instead of discouraging businesses from hiring more employees, it would discourage business from producing more pollution.
    Global warming pollution, indeed all pollution, is now described by economists as an ‘externality.’ This absurd label means, in essence: we don’t to keep track of this stuff so let’s pretend it doesn’t exist.”?

    It sounds like a neat trick, killing two birds with one stone. Certainly, I am open to taxing externalities based on the difference between their social and private costs. In contrast to Mr. Gore’s aspersion on economists, the word “externality”? doesn’t mean we should pretend it doesn’t exist, it means the relevant actors (the polluters) pretend it doesn’t exist, which is a problem because it does.

    Economists suggest several alternatives. Nobel Prize winner Ronald Coase suggests establishing legally enforceable property rights. The reason we have air pollution is because nobody owns the air. The reason we have less land pollution (e.g. dumping) hither and yon is because people do own the land.

    The problem of course is (a) establishing ownership of the air and (b) tracking air pollution back to its source so that polluters can be legally charged.

    The second solution is regulatory. With regards to traditional “criteria”? pollutants in the US (ozone, carbon monoxide, oxides of nitrogen, sulfur dioxide, lead, and particulates), tailpipe pollution is regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency, and cities have to ensure their transportation plans don’t pollute beyond a certain threshold. Currently, CO2 is not a criteria pollutant because it does not have health effects, at least not in the same way. This is a quantity-based strategy. Mr. Gore advocates this when he suggests “freezing”? carbon emissions.

    A third solution, as Mr. Gore also suggests, is taxing pollution. In its pure form, we would allow anyone to pollute as much as they want, so long as they pay the carbon tax, which if properly set, would constrain the amount of pollution produced by providing the correct incentives. That tax (say X$/ton) would equal the social effect of the pollution. Establishing that social cost is not simple, nor is it uncontroversial. About 10 years ago I read a book about this by William Nordhaus, (the updated version is Warming the World: Economic Models of Global Warming by William D. Nordhaus and Joseph Boyer). The tax per ton would rise over time (as presumably would the impact of climate change, and our ability to pay for it). This is a price-based solution. The recent emergence of emissions trading combines quantity and price-based solutions.

    Figuring out the proper level of the tax is no simple matter either. We can think about it in terms of damages: if the pollution went unprevented, what would it cost to fix. Or we can think about it in terms of prevention: how much would it cost to avoid the damage. If the cost of damage exceeds the cost of prevention, we should prevent, if the cost of damage is less than the cost of prevention, we should accept the damages. In practice we may prevent some damage and accept some damage.

    Another point is that an externality requires two actors: the polluter and the pollutee. If I pollute, but no one is damaged, no harm is done. Think about noise: As the old koan goes, If a tree falls in the woods and no one is there to hear it, does it make a noise? No, the noise externality is only present if someone hears it and is harmed. By moving into the way of the harm, you are imposing costs on the polluter. Another example is the conflict that occurs with suburbanization into agricultural areas. As much as our politicians romanticize the family farm, farms smell. This isn’t a problem so long as only cows and farmers live there, but when suburbanites move in, this becomes a problem. Should the farmer pay, after all it is his farm producing the externality? Or should the suburbanites bear the cost, since without their presence, no externality would exist?

    With climate change, because of its global nature, we might think consider the polluter clearly at fault. But what about people who move into low-lying, flood-prone areas? If no one lived below sea level in New Orleans, the economic and social damage of Hurricane Katrina would have been much less. Who should pay, the polluters (worldwide), who changed the climate and according to Mr. Gore, made the hurricane more likely, or those who moved into a vulnerable position? If you say some combination of both (which is of course the right answer), what is the combination?

    So even if we have achieved consensus that we are spewing CO2 into the atmosphere, and are in agreement about the direction of that effect (it will make things warmer rather than colder in general), we are still in disagreement about the magnitudes of the climate effects resulting from that CO2, and in even greater disagreement about the economic cost that the climate effects imposes. I have worked with enough large-scale models to conclude that a plethora of assumptions founded on inadequate evidence must produce huge uncertainty.
    Into this environment, Mr. Gore proposes a multi-part acronym-filled scheme that would make a Washington policy wonk swoon. Which leads us back to the carbon tax, which, if set correctly, is perhaps the most effective strategy. Mr. Gore proposes eliminating the Social Security payroll tax and replacing it with a carbon tax, ensuring the policy is “revenue neutral”?. This reminds me a lot of 1980 presidential candidate John Anderson’s proposal for a 50 cent tax on a gallon of gasoline in exchange for dropping the Social Security tax. So the idea is at least 26 years old.

    The payroll tax has elements of unfairness. However Social Security has nothing to do with climate change (except, I guess, that old people pollute). This is an illogical linkage, and will produce a perverse result. If the carbon tax is successful, we lose our funding base for Social Security, which as popular polls suggest, already fails to engender much faith in its fiscal health.

    Two more Nobel Prize winning economists have suggested some rules about managing economic policy:

    1) Jan Tinbergen’s rule: Achieving a multiple number of independent policy targets requires an equal number of policy instruments.

    2) Robert Mundell’s rule: Each policy instrument should be assigned to a policy target on which it has greatest relative effect.

    In other words, these economists posit one policy target per policy instrument (or one stone per bird). Trying to solve two problems requires two policy instruments, and so on.

    If we levy a carbon tax, the revenue should be used to fix the damage global climate change causes or to prevent that damage in the first place. The amount of money that should be charged in a carbon tax is independent of the amount of money required for the payroll tax. By making the plan “revenue neutral”? we are either raising too much money (and wasting money by reducing more carbon than would economically efficient) or not enough money (and wasting the opportunity to provide incentives to invest in more carbon-reducing strategies).

    That said, Social Security should be financed appropriately as well, but that bird deserves another stone. I believe that there should be one policy analyzed per policy essay.