Underground Utilities


After a thunderstorm, I was disempowered for about 5 hours today. Certainly not the end of civilization, but perhaps its foreshadowing. A few moments ago, the power truck rolled down my alley, made some adjustment, and my house roared back to life. I have been re-empowered.
This raises the question, why are power lines still above ground?
Richard Layman sends me to this Electrical Industry discussion of the issue. My sense is they would be happy enough to put utilities underground so long as someone else pays. While underground utilities are less likely to fail due to storm, they may take longer to restore.


If electricity costs me about $0.10 an hour, ($2.40/ day, $876 year), then I would be willing to pay at least $0.10 to avoid an hour of blackout. In all likelihood, I would pay much more than that. In a typical year I am probably blacked out for 24 hours.
If converting to underground distribution cables for utilities costs $723,000 per mile (let’s round to $750K, there is a very wide range of suburban costs of new distribution construction according to the report), and there are about 100 houses per linear mile (a convenient guess, 10 houses per block * 10 blocks per mile (at uniform density, assuming square lots, this implies a density of 10,000 houses per square mile of residentially developed area or 23,000 persons per square mile, which seems high, but we are ignoring areas that don’t have houses as they don’t need residentially-oriented electricity wires), and the line can serve two row of houses (i.e. it runs in the alley) the cost is about $3750 per customer.
I would need to avoid 1562 days of blackout at $0.10 per hour to justify this on blackout avoidance. (In other words, ignoring discounting, if I can avoid 1 blackout day per year, it would take 1562 years to pay back). Obviously I am probably willing to pay more (reducing the payback time), I might even pay $100 per blackout day in extreme cases (maybe the cost of a hotel stay), but that still requires a 37.5 year payback, which is far more than most people would be willing to tolerate. Given the differences in reliability between above and below ground, undergrounding is not economically justified as retrofit for the purposes of continuous electricity unless power outages get much worse.


There are other advantages. Aesthetics for one. And I think this is important, though everyone will weight this themselves. One study in Australia suggests that underground networks increases house prices by 2.9 percent. For an average house price of at least $129,310 this would mean it is worth at least $3750. Now it pays for itself. A stated preference survey by one of the same authors also in Canberra estimates value of $6883 per house.
James Fallows discusses electric infrastructure reliability in the wake of the derecho back east.


London Tubemap – A new angle on the London Underground

Another London Tubemap
Another London Tubemap

The Economist leads me to London Tubemap – A new angle on the London Underground which contains another proposed revision to the famous Beck map, with somewhat more geographic accuracy, though retaining stylization, but with 30 and 60 degree angles, rather than just 45 degrees. Buckminster Fuller might approve.

The Post Office Railway (Mail Rail)

MailRailPhoto MailRailMapFrom Silent UK – Urban & Underground Photography write about London’s quite extensive other Underground : The Post Office Railway (Mail Rail) : “For as long as I can remember, explorers have joked, discussed, cried themselves to sleep over possibilities the Post Office Railway could be explored. Those keen to attempt entry desperately clawing at every scrap of information like a starving hobo snacking on bread crumbs. Just the idea of access, let alone the task of traversing the line seemed fraught with impossible obstacles and doubt.”

(Via TFC)

Oyster Flowprint

From Anil Bawa-Cavia and Urbagram, The Oyster Flowprint. Oyster is the London transit payment system. The movie shows the flows on the system across the day.

This Oyster flowprint visualises trips made using London’s RFID transport card on the London Underground on a typical weekday. Each trail is an individual passenger making a trip, tapping their card at an origin and destination. The actual routes taken are inferred using a simple shortest path algorithm. The animation uses a 5% sample of passengers on the network made available as a Transport for London Data Feed.
Activity on the network is charted along the bottom of the graphic. The double-humped dynamics typical of commuting are evident, and these constitute the characteristic signature of the living city. Twice a day the flowprint expands and contracts, sending its tendrils deep into North London; the diurnal ‘pulse’ of the city in action.
Synchronisation of travel during the morning rush hour, with a steep ramp in activity peaking at 8:40AM, is much greater than during the afternoon, which sees a much broader peak in activity, with people leaving work at a range of times. The afternoon rush hour doesn’t subside until after 7pm, evidence perhaps of Londoner’s love of an after-work pint.

Oyster Flowprint from Anil Bawa-Cavia on Vimeo.

Mayor orders Thames back on map

From BBC Mayor orders Thames back on map
The most recent TfL Tube map had deleted the Thames to simplify presentation.

Reflections on the Streetcar of Portland

A Political Economy of Access: Infrastructure, Networks, Cities, and Institutions by David M. Levinson and David A. King
A Political Economy of Access: Infrastructure, Networks, Cities, and Institutions by David M. Levinson and David A. King

Riding for a conference from the Portland airport to Portland State University on Light Rail Transit (LRT) and then streetcar gave me time to reflect on the Elysian Fields of transportation engineering, the Nirvana of networks and nexi.

Portland, Oregon is one of the major battlegrounds in the mode wars (car vs. transit and the internecine rail vs. bus). It has since the 1980s been held up by planners as the exemplar American city that does almost everything right. The foremost thing they do right in the view of the planning establishment is promoting LRT and bicycling.

The fascination with rail transit in particular (especially as compared with bus) was something I have never quite grokked. As a rational observer with formal training in transportation, I have had a hard time understanding the emotional relationship people have with rail. Why do people like LRT more than bus? Is it simply how we operate them, or that it is modern capital, or is there a psychological benefit associated with deterministic tracks vs. widely diverging roads? There are lots of theories on the matter, I will identify a few below.

  1. Ride quality. The quality of the ride on an LRT is smoother and less herky-jerky than a bus, and passengers have a nicer facility.
  2. Navigability. It is hard to navigate current US bus systems, while the fewer number of rail lines are fairly easy to figure out. Because trains cannot steer, they cannot get lost the way a bus can.
  3. Speed. Trains are faster than local buses, especially if they have their own right of way and few stations.
  4. Permanence. I can make a permanent investment decision based on the location of rail lines, as the transit system is committed to this line, while a bus line may be temporary.
  5. Nostalgia. People who like LRT recall (or wish they could recall) the immediately post-World War II America when streetcars were at a maximum. 1946 was a magical period in US history, a boom following the long depression, when streetcar networks if not at a maximum were really close. (Coupled with a conspiracy theory about their removal)
  6. Sexuality. This is part of the theory presented by Jonathan Richmond’s in his book Transport of Delight and earlier paper The Mythical Conception of Rail Transit in Los Angeles. The image of the train entering the tunnel clearly evokes a primal response.

There are logical rejoinders for the first four (though not the nostalgia or sexuality argument I suppose), the most obvious is that if you spent the kind of money you are spending on rail on buses instead, and operated them better, buses would be quite nice. Navigability could be improved with a bit of thought (and trains can divert), while permanence of the last generation of streetcars (1887-1954) clearly was temporary.

The theory I have now adopted comes from my recent trip from Minneapolis to Portland accessing the airport at both ends via LRT, and then riding the Portland streetcar almost full circle. Rail transit forms an urban superstructure. Guideway transit, esp. LRT makes the city more like a single structure, and makes everything seem closer. The LRT vehicle is continuously running, and if activities are along the path of the vehicle, everything seems quite coordinated. In a way by organizing activities linearly (or multi-linearly), it simplifies the city. Hopping on a train is much like getting on an elevator.

LRT, like walking indoors, keeps you enveloped within civilization, while walking, biking, or driving is a frontier experience, you alone in the wilderness. (And bus falls in-between). We can posit that distances within buildings seem shorter than distances between buildings (Some literature along the notions of this idea exist, see Tversky, but it is not directly on point). Distances connected by the urban superstructure will likely feel closer than those which are not so connected. Walking through a modern airport, or the Minneapolis Skyway, will tell you enveloped distances can be quite large, but still not feel as large as leaving one building into nature for another.

Preferences for civilization or frontier-crossing (or degree of each) vary across individuals. Driving of course places you in a machine, but you, not civilization, are operating the machine, so just as driving is freedom, not everyone wants that freedom to drive, they may prefer freedom from driving. The extent to which you believe in the importance of community over individuals (or vice versa) will affect your perception of the issue.

( LRT may also be more popular than traditional underground subway (Metro) systems. People of course like being able to walk out the door and step onto a train more than having to descend through the gates of hell, Metro to get to the underground subterranean system. There are many reasons, not least of which is the extra time and energy required to so descend. The advantages in principle are faster point to point travel time, but that depends on the access cost vs. the in-motion speed. )

Transit invokes further passions because of the positive feedback loop between ridership, revenue, and route frequency, especially where transit is weak as in much of the US. My riding transit creates a positive externality for you (more riders, shorter headways, and more routes), so of course if you ride transit, you want to impose your preference on me. It is only selfishly rational. Further cars use scarce roadspace. While similar feedback loops may exist on the highway side (more drivers means more closely spaced roads), congestion mitigates that and the network is largely built out, so drivers do not feel the same need to impose their modal preference on the transit riding minority. Finally, drivers may benefit in the short term if other drivers take transit. (Where transit is already congested and frequent, additional riders produce few positive externalities as diminishing returns set in).

London’s Transport recovers after wrong amount of snow

From Going Underground Blog , I am truly sorry I missed seeing London get a real amount of snow.

After yesterday’s “Arctic” conditions, with London’s worst snowfall in 18 years, looks like we will have an easier journey into work this morning. Most of the London Underground seems to be working and at time of writing (7.20am) only the Circle Line is completely suspended due to a broken down train. There are part suspensions on the District, Bakerloo & Hammersmith & City Lines, so check the Tube’s website before you leave home.
Here’s the view from my study today, with the District Line coming in from Richmond, so err… luckily, I’ll be able to get into town.
Most of the main roads have been cleared of snow, so most of London’s buses are back on the road. However TfL said “Five routes are currently suspended linked to the volume of gritting taking place on local roads and there may be reduced services on some other routes.”
The Congestion Charge, which Mayor Boris Johnson lifted yesterday, is back to normal operation today. You’ll be pleased to hear that the wrong type of snow wasn’t blamed for our transport system not coping. Yesterday The Mayor said:
“There’s no doubt about it, this is the right kind of snow, it’s just the wrong kind of quantities.
“My message to the heavens is: ‘You’ve put on a fantastic display of snow power but that is probably quite enough’.”

I like how in yesterday’s interview above Boris manages some clever avoidance. Johnson says “We’ve actually been quite successful with the Tube network”. The interviewer responds rather quickly with “If this was successful I’d like to see what unsuccessful was like”.

The Co-Evolution of London’s Land Use and Transport

updated August 25, 2009:
For those of you who doubt I am doing work over in London, I have completed two other papers (in addition to “Too Expensive to Meter” based on my research over here):

  • Levinson, David (2008) The Orderliness Hypothesis: Does Population Density Explain the Sequence of Rail Station Opening in London? Journal of Transport History 29(1) March 2008 pp.98-114.[download]
  • Network growth is a complex phenomenon. Some have suggested that it occurs in an orderly or rational way, based on the size of the places that are connected. David Levinson examines the order in which stations were added to the London surface rail and Underground rail networks in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, testing the extent to which order correlates with population density. While population density is an important factor in explaining order, he shows that other factors were at work. The network itself helps to reshape land uses, and a network that may have been well ordered at one time may drift away from order as activities relocate.

  • Levinson, David (2008) Density and Dispersion: The Co-Development of Land use and Rail in London. Journal of Economic Geography 8(1) 55-57.
    JEG: [doi]
  • This article examines the changes that occurred in the rail network and density of population in London during the 19th and 20th centuries. It aims to disentangle the ‘chicken and egg’ problem of which came first, network or land development, through a set of statistical analyses clearly distinguishing events by order. Using panel data representing the 33 boroughs of London over each decade from 1871 to 2001, the research finds that there is a positive feedback effect between population density and network density. Additional rail stations (either Underground or surface) are positive factors leading to subsequent increases in population in the suburbs of London, while additional population density is a factor in subsequently deploying more rail. These effects differ in central London, where the additional accessibility produced by rail led to commercial development and concomitant depopulation. There are also differences in the effects associated with surface rail stations and Underground stations, as the Underground was able to get into central London in a way that surface rail could not. However, the two networks were weak (and statistically insignificant) substitutes for each other in the suburbs, while the density of surface rail stations was a complement to the Underground in the center, though not vice versa.

Perhaps more interesting for the non-academic, we (Ahmed El-Geneidy, Feng Xie, and myself of the Nexus group) have put together three quicktime movies

  • 1.The co-evolution of London population density and surface (National) rail
  • 2.The co-evolution of London population density and the Underground
  • 3.The co-evolution of London population density and surface (National) rail and the Underground

These can be accessed from here.

Cash fare in London rises

The Guardian (and other papers) report on the increase in cash fares for public transport in London Most expensive in the world: London’s fares rise again .
The key issue is driving passengers toward electronic payment (Oyster-based smartcard prices have been frozen simultaneous with the cash increase). This is essentially the same as the model I developed a few years ago for toll roads with electronic toll collection, though in that case I suggested pushing travelers to electronic payment through delay reduction and ETC discounts, suggesting that it would be better overall to move travelers toward electronic payment sooner rather than later.
The more relevant point is that the Oyster fare is still more expensive than smartcard fares in other cities. Is that because London is recovering a higher share of its costs directly from passengers (rather than having a larger subsidy from general revenue), or because its costs are higher. The first would be a good reason for higher fares (why should bus users subsidize rail users, or bicyclists subsidize either?), the latter might suggest management problems, especially since there is no notable higher quality of service on the underground than on other large city metros. The network is more extensive, and more as a result more widely used, but on the other hand, it is far less reliable than any other city’s system I have used.
The increase in National Rail fares is another issue entirely …