Reality intrudes upon Obama’s bullet train fantasy | AEI

Image Credit: Grist

Image Credit: Grist

In his 2011 State of the Union address, President Obama dreamily depicted a future, just 25 years hence, where almost all Americans would have easy access to high-speed rail. “This could allow you to go places in half the time it takes to travel by car. For some trips, it will be faster than flying –- without the pat-down.”

I think we’ll see a space elevator before America gets a nation-spanning bullet train system. The New York Times finds that “despite the administration spending nearly $11 billion since 2009 to develop faster passenger trains, the projects have gone mostly nowhere and the United States still lags far behind Europe and China.” Reporter Ron Nixon cites experts who fault the Obama administration for spreading that dough around rather than focusing on key projects like improving Acela Express service in the Northeast Corridor, “the most likely place for high-speed rail.”

Acela averages just 80 mph between Washington and New York, although the trains are capable of going twice as fast. Old infrastructure and rail-sharing slows it down. According to the piece, “a plan to bring it up to the speed of Japanese bullet-trains, which can top 220 m.p.h., will take $150 billion and 26 years, if it ever happens.”

Of course, the US is a lot different than many nations with high-speed rail, nations which have “higher population densities, higher gas prices, higher rates of public-transportation use and lower rates of car ownership.” Not that bulleteers doubt a high-speed future will happen:

But Andy Kunz, executive director of the U.S. High-Speed Rail Association, thinks the United States will eventually have a high-speed rail system that connects the country. “It’s going to take some years after gas prices rise and highways fill up with traffic,” he said. “It’s going to happen because we won’t have a choice.”

Wait, we have no choice but to build high-speed rail because the highways are going to “fill up with traffic”? Let me bring your attention to this chart from Paul Kedrosky:

Paul Kedrosky

And here is transportation expert David Levinson on “peak traffic”:

It depends on where you are as to whether traffic’s declining, but national statistics have shown that per capita travel in vehicles is roughly where it was in the late 1990s. And vehicle miles traveled, the number of miles that cars are moving is roughly where it was in the early 2000s.  And this is after a 90-year increase in the amount of automobile traffic, from, you know, the 1910s to the early 21st century.

So people have sort of this expectation that traffic will continue to increase because it has increased in the past for such a long period of time.  And this is built into traffic forecasts.  It’s built into the way people view the world.  But beginning in the early 2000s, in particular after 9/11, with a number of societal changes, including things like increased gas prices, changing demographics, changing employment, the amount of travel that people were engaging in individually has leveled off and has declined on a per capita level.

Now, a lot of technologies have a lifecycle.  They have an S curve associated with them.  So they start off, they grow slowly even, there’s a period of very rapid growth.  Then it levels off.  And then something new happens and the S curve begins to decline.  And so we sort of see that in a number of things that we no longer use as much we used to.  U.S. mail volume increased for decades upon decades until the 1990s.  And it started to level off in the 1990s with the rise of email and the Internet, and then, in the early 2000s has fallen off a cliff.

So is that going to happen with travel?  And so this is the scenario that I’m painting.  And so it’s a future scenario. I don’t want to say that I predicted that this would happen, but this is one thing that might happen that nobody is taking any account of right now.

And here is a good piece by Tim Worstall on the impact of potential impact of driverless cars on high-speed rail. Technology will change how America’s gets around. But more likely it will be 21st century technology, not that of the 1970s.

Should light rail get priority at St. Paul stoplights | Pioneer Press

Interviewed by Fred Melo of the Pioneer Press for this piece: Should light rail get priority at St. Paul stoplights?

David Levinson, a professor of Transportation Engineering in the University of Minnesota’s Department of Civil, Environmental and Geo-engineering, says St. Paul had plenty of time to perfect Green Line traffic signals during six months of test trips.

He suspects the decision not to give the Green Line nearly as much priority at traffic signals as the Blue Line is mostly political. When the Blue Line debuted in 2004, cars queued up for lengthy wait times on Minneapolis cross streets. City engineers in St. Paul feared a repeat.

“I think the city could do more,” Levinson said. “I think the city knew about this for a very long time. I think the city was scared of the very long signal times on Hiawatha Avenue. … They were reluctant to give as much priority.”

Kari Spreeman, a spokeswoman with St. Paul Public Works, said the city is committed to making sure bicyclists and pedestrians can cross the avenue, cars can make left turns, and the light rail can go by. It’s a lot to balance.

“We have a team of traffic engineers working on the system every day and are continuing to work closely with Metro Transit to tweak the system,” Spreeman said. “Our goal is the same as it has been from the beginning — to strike a balance.”

Greg Hull, an assistant vice president with the American Public Transportation Association, said he’s seen other cities wade through similar questions about how to balance major transit investments with competing traffic demands.

“The challenges you’re facing in Minneapolis-St. Paul are not unusual for what you’ll find in most cities,” Hull said. “They become political decisions, and it becomes a matter of local jurisdictions needing to determine what’s in their best interest.”

Some transit engineers say the conflicts between cross-traffic and public transit aren’t always as significant as they are perceived to be. A 2003 study based in Fairfax County, northern Virginia, found that giving buses priority at intersections through extended green lights improved their reliability without significant impacts on traffic at cross-streets. In fact, the traffic queue on the side streets increased by one vehicle.

“It’s important to recognize there’s a trade-off,” Levinson said. “That said, there’s going to be a lot more people in a train than in a car at any time, so the trade-off should favor the train.”

Nate Khaliq, a former firefighter and neighborhood activist who lives in the Summit-University neighborhood, said he was surprised that the train doesn’t already get priority at traffic lights.

“I would have thought they’d have all this stuff together, when you put $1 billion into a public transportation project,” Khaliq said. “It certainly wouldn’t bother me to wait a little longer at stop lights.”

Comment: I did the interview over the phone while riding on the Green Line. We (the east-bound train, with me aboard) made the lights until we entered St. Paul. We were stopped at a Red Light at Berry Avenue, a street with very little traffic, the first light wholly inside St. Paul.

The happy commuter: A comparison of commuter satisfaction across modes

My colleagues at McGill just published: The happy commuter: A comparison of commuter satisfaction across modes

Publication date: September 2014
Source:Transportation Research Part F: Traffic Psychology and Behaviour, Volume 26, Part A
Author(s): Evelyne St-Louis , Kevin Manaugh , Dea van Lierop , Ahmed El-Geneidy (preprint)


Abstract: Understanding how levels of satisfaction differ across transportation modes can be helpful to encourage the use of active as well as public modes of transportation over the use of the automobile. This study uses a large-scale travel survey to compare commuter satisfaction across six modes of transportation (walking, bicycle, automobile, bus, metro, commuter train) and investigates how the determinants of commuter satisfaction differ across modes. The framework guiding this research assumes that external and internal factors influence satisfaction: personal, social, and attitudinal variables must be considered in addition to objective trip characteristics. Using ordinary least square regression technique, we develop six mode-specific models of trip satisfaction that include the same independent variables (trip and travel characteristics, personal characteristics, and travel and mode preferences). We find that pedestrians, train commuters and cyclists are significantly more satisfied than drivers, metro and bus users. We also establish that determinants of satisfaction vary considerably by mode, with modes that are more affected by external factors generally displaying lower levels of satisfaction. Mode preference (need/desire to use other modes) affects satisfaction, particularly for transit users. Perceptions that the commute has value other than arriving at a destination significantly increases satisfaction for all modes. Findings from this study provide a better understanding of determinants of trip satisfaction to transport professionals who are interested in this topic and working on increasing satisfaction among different mode users.

Here is exactly the sort of infrastructure spending Republicans should support | AEI Ideas

Jim Pethokoukis at AEI writes about what Republican transportation policy should look like. I am glad my ideas are being embraced by both AEI and the Obama administration.


University of Minnesota Transportation expert and must-follow blogger David Levinson was recently asked what he would do to help low-income residents if given $1 billion to spend. Now the context here is the opening of $1 billion light-rail line between downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul. Levinson:

and then he cites the part of my blog post: Five questions about public transit, rail vs. bus, and gentrification. on spending for buses. He goes on to ask.


Why are buses treated as second-class transportation options? One reason, this Next City story suggests, is that middle-class (and above) citizens are kind of snooty about buses. They view them as transportation purely for poor people. “Only losers ride the bus.” Of course, this is a cultural and financial choice. Buses could be cooler and, more importantly, provide better service. And one group they could provide better services for is … lower-income people who have limited commuting options. …

Differences Between Walking and Bicycling Over Time: Implications for Performance Measurement

Recent working paper:

Schoner, J., Lindsey, G., and Levinson, D. (2014) Differences Between Walking and Bicycling Over Time:  Implications for Performance Measurement

Walking and Biking Mode Shares in summer 2001 vs. 2010
Walking and Biking Mode Shares in summer 2001 vs. 2010
  • Transportation policies and plans encourage non-motorized transportation and the establishment of performance measures to assess progress towards multi-modal system goals. Challenges in fostering walking and bicycling include the lack of data for measuring rates of walking and bicycling over time and differences in pedestrians and bicyclists and the trips they make. This paper analyzes travel behavior inventories conducted by the Metropolitan Council in the Minneapolis-St. Paul Metropolitan Area in 2001 and 2010 to illuminate differences walking and bicycling over time and illustrate the implications for performance measurement. We focus on the who, what, where, when, and why of non-motorized transportation: who pedestrians and bicyclists are, where they go and why, when they travel, and what factors are associated with the trips they make. Measured by summer mode share, walking and bicycling both increased during the decade, but the differences between the modes overshadow their similarities. Using descriptive statistics, hypothesis testing, and multinomial logistic models, we show that walkers are different than bicyclists, that walking trips are shorter and made for different purposes, that walking and bicycling trips differ seasonally, and that different factors are associated with the likelihoods of walking or bicycling. While the increase in mode share was greater for walking than bicycling, the percentage increase relative to 2001 share was greater for bicycling than walking. Both walking and bicycling remain mainly urban transportation options. Older age reduces the likelihood of biking trips more than walking trips, and biking remains gendered while walking is not. These differences call into question the common practice of treating nonmotorized transportation as a single mode. Managers can use these results to develop performance measures for tracking progress towards system goals in a way that addresses the unique and different needs of pedestrians and bicyclists.

Main Street – Excelsior |

Cross-posted from

Excelsior, Minnesota is home to Minnesota’s second operating streetcar line (part of the Minnesota Streetcar Museum). Being good transportationists, we visited a few weeks ago. Excelsior is legally a city, though really a town, with about 2400 people. Excelsior is coated about 20 miles southwest of Minneapolis (map), connected directly by Mn 7, and more circuitously by Excelsior Boulevard (County 3). Though the town’s population is small, it possesses a main street (Water Street) that serves a larger market area, though the businesses are clearly appealing to those with some accumulated capital (flickr).

Minnesota Streetcar Museum - Excelsior
Minnesota Streetcar Museum – Excelsior
Ludefisk: It's Good to Eat. The Harpoon in Every guarantees it genuine. Holiday Cheer in Every Bite. Ask your Dealer for Genuine Old Style Ludefisk in New Sanitary Packages prepared only by the Kildall Company Importers, Minneapolis
Ludefisk: It’s Good to Eat. The Harpoon in Every Fish guarantees it genuine. Holiday Cheer in Every Bite. Ask your Dealer for Genuine Old Style Ludefisk in New Sanitary Packages prepared only by the Kildall Company Importers, Minneapolis

The area was developed in part by Twin City Rapid Transit, back in the day, when it extended its line here as a terminus, aiming for both weekday and weekend service, the latter to try to attract reverse direction (outbound) weekend flows for people seeking a summer holiday in this lakeside town. Lake Minnetonka is a huge attraction, and TCRT constructed Big Island Amusement park nearby, connected by TCRT ferry. Unfortunately for Tom Lowry and company, this venture only lasted from 1906-1911. Another entrepreneur, Fred Pearce, was more successful on a mainland site, as the Excelsior Amusement Park lasted from 1925-1973, before the owners migrated southward to Valleyfair.

Water Street - Excelsior
Water Street – Excelsior
Port of Excelsior
Port of Excelsior

Today Water Street retains the common features of late 19th/early 20th century streetcar nodes and main streets, a good frontage of retail activity for several blocks. There is on-street parking, with far more parking around the back. Water Street naturally enough leads to the Lake, which is pleasant to look at, and I am sure pleasant to boat on. (I don’t really have much to say about maritime transportation). It is well-maintained and fixed up, with the all important streetlights, but more importantly, fully occupied, which is more than can be said for some main streets in Greater Minnesota. The main downside is that the developed area is fairly small, which is a shame, for there is far more retail activity in and around Lake Minnetonka in much less pleasant designs.

The Streetcar Museum (which is basically a trolley ride plus the shops) is well worth the $2 admission. My favorite part are the ads on the interior of the streetcar (among them, promoting Ludefisk).

Alternative High Occupancy/Toll Lane Pricing Strategies and their Effect on Market Share

Recent working paper:

Janson, M. and Levinson, D. (2014) Alternative High Occupancy/Toll Lane Pricing Strategies and their Effect on Market Share

Price vs. Density
Price vs. Density
  • High Occupancy/Toll (HOT) Lanes typically charge a varying to single occupant vehicles (SOVs), with the toll increasing during more congested periods. The toll is usually tied to time of day or to the density of vehicles in the HOT lane. The purpose of raising the toll with congestion is to discourage demand enough to maintain a high level of service (LOS) in the HOT lane. Janson and Levinson (2014) demonstrated that the HOT toll may act as a signal of downstream congestion (in both general purpose (GP) and HOT lanes), causing an increase in demand for the HOT lane, at least at lower prices. This paper builds off that research and explores alternative HOT lane pricing strategies, including the use of GP density as a factor in price to more accurately reflect the value of the HOT lane. In addition, the paper explores the potential effect these strategies would have on the HOT lane vehicle share through a partial equilibrium analysis. This analysis demonstrates the change in demand elasticity with price, showing the point at which drivers switch from a positive to negative elasticity.

by David Levinson


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