California HSR redux

California High Speed Rail Blog: Taking the Coast Route purports to discuss The Transportation Experience.
It might be worth reading the book The Transportation Experience to see what Garrison and Levinson (i.e. me) actually think.
(And in contrast to the blog-author’s assertion, both gas prices and global warming are addressed as issues, with possible solutions considered).
HSR rail is ultimately gussied up rail technology, which has its niche in high density areas with available Right-of-Way (and no intervening mountain ranges). The book, and another book by Garrison, do describe other technologies that hold some promise, but this book is primarily about understanding the historical process of transportation development, and why it creates the problems we have.
The blog author here is clearly imposing his imagined assumption of conventional opposition onto Prof. Garrison, who is a very out-of-the-box thinker, who does not fall into the traps that swallow either of the ends on the conventional axis (pro-auto, pro-rail) .
There are several other issues here
Certainly $4/gallon gas is more expensive than $3/gallon gas, but we are not talking about a project (California HSR) that is even marginally cost-effective.
The cost (and energy used) in construction will be enormous.
The rail, as all transportation projects, will promote sprawled development in the Central Valley which will now be in commuting range of the Bay Area or metropolitan LA.
The question is not whether this is a project which is beneficial (which it is not), but whether it is the best use of scarce funds (which it most certainly is not). If you had $40 Billion to spend on transportation in California, what would you do, what would serve the most people the best.
Granted air travel is not terribly convenient, but once the same security apparatus is imposed on HSR (and it will be), HSR will not be the simple urban transit-like (or even Amtrak-like) experience fans would wish for.

Bridge collapse didn’t stall commutes, U study finds

The longer article in the Pioneer Press: Bridge collapse didn’t stall commutes, U study finds –

Bridge collapse didn’t stall commutes, U study finds
University of Minnesota report shows times up only slightly
By Jake Grovum
Article Last Updated: 08/28/2008 11:51:43 PM CDT
A year after the Interstate 35W bridge collapse, the average Twin Cities car trip has increased by less than a minute, according to a University of Minnesota study.
The average trip before the bridge collapse was 18.6 minutes, according to the study by University of Minnesota associate civil engineering professor David Levinson. After the collapse, drive time grew by two-tenths of a minute, to 18.8 minutes.
Other studies indicate the commute time to work and back also grew only less than a minute, Levinson said.
In fact, for the majority of the estimated 150,000 motorists who crossed the eight-lane bridge daily — even those now driving in heavily-trafficked areas — the time hasn’t changed much at all. Some have even seen shorter commutes, the study found.
The reason?
Despite almost 100,000 more cars using Minnesota 280 and 35,000 more cars on Interstate 94 between 280 and I-35W each day, the infrastructure in the metro area is designed to withstand those increases.
Commuters did get help from emergency road improvements after the collapse. An extra I-94 traffic lane was added in each direction between downtown Minneapolis and 280, while two intersections with stoplights were closed on 280 and most ramps were widened or modified for better traffic flow.
Levinson surveyed those affected by the collapse, monitored vehicle counts and used models to analyze post-collapse traffic.
It’s not an issue of people driving less, Levinson said, because traffic levels have been steady for the past year. Despite the collapse and an increase in gas prices, the number of commutes is about the same.
Still, comparable before and after commute times might not be comforting to commuters. Prior to the collapse, the I-35W and I-94 interchange was one of the most heavily congested areas in Minneapolis.
Immediately after the collapse, two main Minnesota Department of Transportation detour sites, 280 to I-94 and Interstate 694 to Interstate 394, endured “severe congestion” and every remaining bridge crossing the Mississippi River became more crowded, according to Levinson’s research, but the improvements helped accommodate motorists.
“Those made those facilities operate pretty well,” Levinson said. “Had those improvements not been made, things would be a lot worse.”
Not everyone is getting around so easily.
Lisa Sweet commutes from Roseville to Plymouth. She plans to sell her house and move closer to her job after seeing an extra 30 minutes tacked onto her drive.
“The commute right away was pretty tough,” she said. “(Now) they’re choosing to drive different ways so the traffic is spread out.”
Sweet has a number of routes she uses, but some take longer than others. Those in her office have been sharing tips for navigating the post-collapse roadways, Sweet said, adding that I-694 “isn’t great on Fridays.”
Brian Kary, MnDOT freeway operations engineer, said commute times went “up significantly” immediately after the bridge collapse but said that after the improvements, most commute times were “comparable,” particularly on I-94.
Still, Levinson’s research seems at odds with a 2008 MnDOT report examining congestion in the metro area. That study found a 40-mile increase in total congested miles (a mile of traffic moving slower than 45 miles per hour) for the first time in four years in 2007, citing the bridge collapse as a reason for the “dramatic” increase.
But MnDOT expects to see “significant congestion relief” when the new 10-lane I-35W bridge is complete, according to its report, although it’s unclear whether the supplemental road improvements will be permanent, Kary said.

Study finds traffic not bad after bridge collapse

Our traffic effects of the bridge collapse study made AP: Study finds traffic not bad after bridge collapse
From the Pioneer Press:

Minnesota News
Study finds traffic not bad after bridge collapse
The Associated Press
Article Last Updated: 08/29/2008 06:27:12 AM CDT
MINNEAPOLIS—A University of Minnesota study shows that car trips in the Twin Cities are less than a minute longer than they were before the Interstate 35W bridge collapse.
Civil engineering professor David Levinson looked into the Twin Cities drive times and found that the average trip before the collapse was just two-tenths of a minute faster.
Levinson says other studies have shown that work commute times are also less than a minute longer.
Part of the reason is emergency road improvements on Minnesota 280 and Interstate 94. But Levinson also says the infrastructure in the Twin Cities was designed to handle an increase.
While severe congestion occurred immediately after the collapse, traffic flow improved with the changes.
The new Interstate 35W bridge is set to be open as early as next month.

Derailing the Boondoggle

An article appears in the magazine Miller-McCune by Ryan Blitstein Derailing the Boondoggle, which discusses Bent Flybjerg, reference-class forecasting, and the trouble with mega-projects.
Clearly engineering based estimates of project costs built up cubic yard by cubic yard ought to be compared with economic-based estimates of the costs of the same project using comparable cases. Similarly for demand forecasts. Ideally the two methods (economic and engineering) would be the same, or close. Practice indicates otherwise.
One wonders whether estimates showing benefits < costs would actually derail many of these projects. Hiawatha LRT in Minnesota had a published B/C ratio of 0.42 and went forward and is now heralded (politically) as a success. Whether the B/C would actually exceed 1.0 is a class project for my transportation economics class this Fall.
Nevertheless, not all forecasts are high. In the Twin Cities, our study "Post-Construction Evaluation of Traffic Forecast Accuracy" show they tended to underestimate traffic.

The Privatization of Public Infrastructure

Article in NYT: Running Out of Money, Cities Are Debating the Privatization of Public Infrastructure
“Reeling from more exotic investments that imploded during the credit crisis, Kohlberg Kravis Roberts, the Carlyle Group, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and Credit Suisse are among the investors who have amassed an estimated $250 billion war chest — much of it raised in the last two years — to finance a tidal wave of infrastructure projects in the United States and overseas.”
This is like what This American Life called “The Giant Pool of Money” which was chasing mortgages a few years ago (and dotcoms before that).
Will we see a similar bubble in infrastructure financing deals gone bad in 5 or 10 years? Was the London Underground Metronet PPP collapse a harbinger of the future?
Unfortunately the ever-growing Giant Pool of Money seeking steady reward does not have foresight, it just finds a short run equilibrium without being able to see the consequences downstream.
Whether these are governed and regulated as public utilities, or unfettered monopolists will make a large difference on their political success as well.
Infrastructure is slow to build and slower to change, it is important to get the investments right. The private sector will want to offload risk and guarantee profit, which is at odds with the public good. The experience with private ownership of infrastructure is mixed, which does not mean it should not be pursued, but that it should be pursued intelligently learning from experience, especially international experience, where private roads, airports, ports, post offices, passenger rail, and transit systems, along with water and sewer, are far more common than in that bastion of market capitalism the United States.

Cloud Commuting

Once upon a time, people kept their life savings on their person or at their homes, stored in physical material like gold and jewelry and property. Then money was invented as a medium of exchange, and people stored a surrogate of their wealth. Then banking was invented, and people centralized their holdings in a bank, and were paid interest for the privilege. Why were they paid? Because the banks could reuse their money by lending it out, at an even greater rate of interest. Money is fungible. I do not lose anything by storing it at the bank (and allowing them to lend it) except the privacy of keeping secret how much money I have, and risk that the bank will be unable to pay me back. The first is resolved through regulations, and the use of multiple banks, the latter by insurance. In any case, it is much safer than storing the money in a mattress at home.

Once upon a time, people kept their life’s information on their person or on computers at their home or work, stored in physical material like floppy disk drives, hard disk drives, solid state drives, CDs, DVDs, and USB chips. Then the internet was invented, and centralized servers were made inexpensively and redundantly, and people could store their information in the “cloud”. In many cases the cloud is free, or charges only a small fee. In exchange, the recipients agree to allow their personal information to be used to generate customized advertising targeted at them personally. But imagine their were a way for the cloud to earn interest on information much the same way banks earn interest on money, by synthesizing it and “lending it out”. Since information is not rivalrous, this may prove viable with sufficient artificial intelligence aimed at developing ontologies and computer intelligence. The risk is the loss of privacy. Alternatively the customer pays the cloud for storage and computation, retaining privacy, in exchange being relieved of duties of backup, which when neglected lead to all too much data loss.

Once upon a time people kept their personal transportation near their person, parking cars and bikes at their homes, workplaces, or other destinations. This was the only way to guarantee point to point transportation in a timely way where densities were low, incomes high, and taxis scarce. Then “cloud commuting” was invented, cars from a giant pool operated by organizations in the cloud would dispatch a vehicle that drives to the customer on demand and in short order, and then deliver the customer to the destination. The vehicle would have the customers preferences pre-loaded (seat position, computing ability, audio environment). The customer benefits of course by not tying up capital in vehicles, nor having to worry about maintaining or fueling vehicles. The fleet is used more efficiently, each vehicle would operate 2 times or 3 times or more miles per year than current vehicles, so the fleet would turnover faster and be more modern. Fewer vehicles overall would be needed. It is likely customers would need to pay for this service (either as a subscription or a per-use basis), there is no obvious analogue to financial interest payments (and while advertising might offset some costs, surely it would not cover them). However stores might subsidize transportation, as might employers, as benefits for the customers or staff.

The tension between centralization and decentralization has been continuous through the history of technology, each has its advantages and disadvantages (and strangely, each also has religious zealots convinced there is one true way). This is ultimately a question of costs and benefits, and who bears the costs and benefits.

I am skeptical that cloud commuting can be made to work quite yet, there are still a few more technologies to perfect. Having tested Zipcar, their system lacks in several ways, much the ways the first banks failed frequently. Zipcars are still not local enough, they charge too much for lateness, the technology is still imperfect. But imagine we have cars that drive themselves. (and to PRT-advocates, these will be cars driving on streets, there are not enough resources to build a new infrastructure network for specialized vehicles). Smart cars solve the localness problem, since the cars come to you. In a way it also solves the lateness problem, because there is no need to reserve a specific car for a specific window, any unused fleet car can be dispatched. There would need to load balancing features, and maybe coordinated carpooling at peak times. (It also saves on parking, especially parking in high value areas).
Related links:

* Technological change, part 2: Autonomous vehicles
* The Future of Cars