New York has Haiku. \\ Traffic signs avert danger. \\ Do they work? Find Out.

8 million swimming. The traffic rolling like waves. Watch for undertow.
8 million swimming.
The traffic rolling like waves.
Watch for undertow.

The Week: New York City’s ‘adorable’ haiku traffic signs: “By rewriting traditional street-sign warnings in haiku form, New York City is using poetry to urge motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians to think about safety. City Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan unveiled the new Curbside Haiku campaign on Tuesday, saying the city is “putting poetry into motion with public art to make New York City’s streets even safer.””


Linklist: November 30, 2011

Map: Hybrid And Electric Sales Across The Country: “Hybrids and electrics account for less than 3 percent of all cars sold in the U.S. this year, but that ratio is higher in some areas. The San Francisco Bay Area leads the nation with 8.4 percent of all cars sold and the rest of the top 10 markets are also on the West Coast.”

Pioneer Press: American Airlines pins hopes on recovery in bankruptcy: “After resisting for a decade, the parent company of American Airlines announced Tuesday that it would follow a strategy that the rest of the industry chose long ago: filing for bankruptcy protection so it can shed debt, cut labor costs and find a way back to profitability.”

Freakonomics Blog: Daniel Kahneman Answers Your Questions: “Two weeks ago, we solicited your questions for Princeton psychology professor and Nobel laureate  Daniel Kahneman, whose new book is called Thinking, Fast and Slow. You responded by asking 45 questions. Kahneman has answered 22 of them in one of the more in-depth and wide-ranging Q&A’s we’ve run recently.” [The books is well worth reading]

Linklist: November 27, 2011

LA Times: Renewable power trumps fossil fuels for first time: “Renewable energy is surpassing fossil fuels for the first time in new power-plant investments, shaking off setbacks from the financial crisis and an impasse at the United Nations global warming talks.”

USA Today: Feds open probe into post-crash fires in Chevrolet Volt: “Federal safety regulators said today they are opening a formal safety investigation into whether the batteries in the Chevrolet Volt plug-in extended-range electric car catch fire after crashes. The probe could have far-reaching implications for all electric cars and other devices powered by advanced batteries.”

Strib: Downtown Minneapolis dropped off shoppers’ list: “But the downtown exodus did not stop. In 1998, there were 183 retail establishments in the 55402 ZIP code, which encompasses much of the central business district. By 2009 there were 94, a trend that might exhaust even the most tireless downtown booster.” Mass Transit: Could Raising Fares Increase Ridership? : “Conventional wisdom dictates that keeping transit fares as low as possible will promote high ridership levels. That isn’t entirely incorrect. Holding all else constant, raising fares would have a negative impact on ridership. But allowing the market to set transit fares, when coupled with a number of key reforms could actually increase transit ridership, even if prices increase. In order to implement these reforms, we would need to purge from our minds the idea that public transit is a welfare service that ought to be virtually free in order to accommodate the poor. Concern about poverty should drive welfare policy, not transit policy. Persistent efforts to keep public transit fares as low as possible are a big part of the reason that public transit ridership in North America has hit record lows. To increase ridership, transit agencies have to convince people who can afford to drive that transit is a better option. Convenience, and not lower prices, is the key.”

Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space: Happy anniversary, zoning!: “This year marks the 85th anniversary of the landmark United States Supreme Court case Euclid v Ambler Realty, which upheld the basic constitutionality of local zoning. Given the current debate between liberals and conservatives about the appropriate role of regulation in shaping our economy and our communities, it seems timely to ask the question: do we still need zoning?

The Antiplanner: New Concept: Compare Benefits with Costs: “The San Francisco Bay Area Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) is considering the possibility of using benefit-cost analyses to decide how to spend federal and state taxpayer dollars. This “new” technology dates back to 1848, so you can see why regional planners might be just discovering it now.”

A solution to the European economic problem.

I keep reading about the woes of Europe. Tyler Cowen for instance says in: Is the end near?: “The motto “no monetary union without a fiscal union” isn’t wrong, but more to the point is “no fiscal union without a common electorate.”
The problem is supposedly sticky wages, and the solution for sticky wages is apparently destroying the monetary system. Clearly there is a simpler solution. Money is just a measure of value. Similarly, the hour is just a measure of time, the meter is a measure of length, and so on. Instead of changing their monetary system, Greece and Italy should just revalue their units of measure, keep the Euro, and drop out of the metric system. The Greek Hour could be made longer, so that Greek workers would be more productive for an “8-hour” day. And if they didn’t want to work on the time scale of “the new hour”, they could worker fewer new-hours and just as much real-time as old-hours, but be paid for fewer hours of work. But see, their Euro-denominated wages on an “hourly-basis” would not be cut, everyone can save face, and the Euro preserved. We do something similar every year for daylight savings time.
For solving the problem in Europe, I will be accepting my Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel next fall, see you somewhere in Scandinavia.

US road accident casualties: every one mapped across America

Guardian: US road accident casualties: every one mapped across America :
“US road accident casualties: every one mapped across America
369,629 people died on America’s roads between 2001 and 2009. Following its analysis of UK casualties last week, transport data mapping experts ITO World have taken the official data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration – and produced this powerful map using OpenStreetMap. You can zoom around the map using the controls on the left or search for your town using the box on the right – and the key is on the top left. Each dot represents a life”

It is a bit a haunting.

Some thoughts on the Intercounty Connector

Map of MD200 - The Inter-County Connector
Map of MD200 – The Inter-County Connector

WaPo: Maryland cuts ribbon on new toll road between Shady Grove and Laurel :

WaPo: ICC puts strain on Maryland’s transportation funds

Baltimore Sun: ICC opening to bring regions closer :

“Next month’s opening of the main section of the Intercounty Connector linking Interstate 95 with Interstate 270 in Montgomery County is expected to have significant effects on Baltimore’s economy as it brings the state’s richest job and commercial market a half-hour closer to its largest city.
The debut of the new section Nov. 22 will close the gap between the already opened western section of the ICC and I-95 in Prince George’s County. Unlike the first section, which has been mostly used for local traffic, the opening of the new stretch is expected to bring immediate benefits to many Baltimore-area drivers for whom the trip to Rockville or Gaithersburg has long been a traffic nightmare.”

I drove the first section this past summer on my periodic visits to Montgomery County. It is a very nice ride, perhaps one of the more pleasant roads to be on. Compared with most long-distance roads on Montgomery County, it does not (yet) suffer congestion (and with tolls, it may almost never). It may even be faster to places like Aspen Hill from Tysons than using surface streets, despite the added distance (and cost).
As a planning question, rather than a subjective ride question, my views are more mixed. I did not work on the road plans when I was at MNCPPC, though we did model it (and tested what would happen with and without, just for fun). Clearly induced demand and induced development applies. Build it and they will come, don’t and they won’t. That does not of itself mean it is a bad thing, but it will shape development patterns assuming the tolls are not so high as to capture all of the benefits.
Montgomery County has lots of land use controls, so the induced development will, at first be in compliance with existing plans. But as new accessibility creates new value, the pressures to change zoning to accommodate that potential value will intensify. My own sense is the key points are the interchanges at I-95 in PG County, US 29 (itself mostly converted to freeway) and Shady Grove. Maybe not this election, maybe not the next, but at some point. And once that window is opened, facts on the ground will be essentially irreversible.
The other pressures will be to extend eastwards and westwards. I think eastwards (as once proposed to US 301) is more likely, since it is within the state. The flows on to and off of the ICC will inevitably create pressures on upstream and downstream links. Whether those pressures get relieved depends on numerous factors (roads are obviously slow to build and long to unbuild).
The Montrose Parkway, once the Rockville Facility, is a stub that was originally to connect the ICC with I-270 south of Rockville. As the right-of-way for that was turned into Matthew Henson State Park in the early 1990s, it would be difficult to revive. On the other hand, Matthew Henson State Parkway has a nice ring.

Transportation costs too much

Marq 2 Transitway in Minneapolis
Marq 2 Transitway in Minneapolis

Crossposted at and
When I was growing up (in suburban Maryland), there was an ad on local TV from Crown Books. Founder Robert Haft asserted “books cost too much”, which led him to create Crown Books, and helped put independent booksellers out of business decades before Amazon became villain #1 among the literati.
Transportation costs too much.
Yet unlike independent booksellers, we weep not for the independent contractors and businesses that charge so much for transportation infrastructure, equipment, and operations.

  • Signalized intersections (~$175K),
  • buses (~$400K),
  • roundabouts (~$300K),
  • loop detectors (~$5K) (ed. installed),
  • diamond interchanges (~$9M),
  • bridges to nowhere Houlton, Wisconsin (~$668M),
  • light rail lines (~$1.4B),
  • high-speed rail lines (~$100B), etc.

are just some of the all quite pricey elements of transportation in early 21st century America. It sure seems like we should be able to build this cheaper. Think about it, $175K for 12 lightbulbs on a timer. What’s going wrong?
I have several hypotheses (please add others in the comments):

  1. Standards have risen. Our obsession with safety, features, environmental protection, and quality drive up the cost. Engineering design is often 20% of project costs. If only we would tolerate a few more deaths, a bus without AC, pollution, and frequent breakdowns, our initial costs would be lower. But when do reasonable investments become gold plating? Does the firetruck really need to do a 360 degree turn on the cul-de-sac, or can it back out?
  2. Principal-agent problem. Public works agencies are spending Other People’s Money, and so are less motivated to get value for dollar than an individual consumer on their own. This principal-agent problem prevails in lots of organizations, but especially so in public works where the bias is not to have a failure. There was an old saying in business, no one ever got fired for buying IBM. The same holds in public works, where rocking the boat with new or innovative technologies is not sufficiently rewarded.
  3. Thin markets. There is no or eBay for public works. I cannot go on Amazon and buy a transit bus or an interchange. The internet has not driven down prices in this field the way it has in so many others. As a result a few vendors can collude or orchestrate higher prices than would be faced in a more competitive market.
  4. There are in-sufficient economies of scale. When everything is bespoke, there is no opportunity for standardization and economies of scale. While many rail against cookie-cutter design, it is only with cookie-cutters that we get lots of cookies.
  5. Projects are scoped wrong. We have investments that don’t match actual demands. And this is not just for megaprojects. We have big buses serving few passengers. We have overgrown highways. We have a fear of building too small and having congestion or crowding so we build too big.
  6. Benefits are concentrated, costs are diffuse. As a result, the known beneficiaries lobby hard for projects, but not just to build it, but to build it in a way that is expensive. Costs are diffuse, it is seldom worth the taxpayer’s time to oppose a project just because of its costs, which are spread among millions of other taxpayers.
  7. Decision-makers are remote. Remote actors cannot have precise information about local conditions, and in the absence of a free market in transportation (there is generally one buyer, who is generally a government agency), prices are not clear. As a result these remote actors misallocate because they are misinformed. This notion derives from the Economic calculation problem and Hayek’s Fatal Conceit.
  8. No one actually does B/C analysis. A recent headline in the San Jose Mercury News says:Bay Area transportation projects to be judged on benefits vs. costs – :

    “”Talk to any business person about not having a benefits-vs.-cost discussion and they’ll say, ‘Duh, you mean you don’t do that?’ ” said the commission’s executive director, Steve Heminger. “They insist on it, but in the transportation profession it is not all that common. … This levels the playing field.””

    Heminger was appointed executive director in 2001 and hired in 1993, and only *now* they are doing benefit/cost analysis. At any rate, looking at the ratios presented in the story, they are clearly doing it wrong. Whether it is common or not I will leave to politicians or political scientists, however it has been the textbook procedure for a very long time. I suppose it is progress to at least acknowledge using B/C analysis even if the implementation is flawed

We are simultaneously spending too much and not spending enough. Because we mis-prioritize where the money is spent, we have inadequate resources for other things. We cut corners.
My favorite example is the bus stop sign which says “bus stop”. While this is better than no bus stop sign, or one that said “Buses Don’t Stop Here”, it is still quite uninformative, it doesn’t say which bus stops here, when it stops, where it is going, what is the frequency, when it operates. Why don’t we have better bus service operations? In part because the scarce resources that could be devoted to that are instead spent on expensive new capital investments that serve a much smaller fraction of the population.
We can all think of things that we would like the transportation system to do, that are technically feasible, but it doesn’t, because resources are scarce. They are scarce because of misallocation.
The costs of gold plating are several. Money spent on project X cannot be spent on project Y. This is the monetary opportunity cost of misallocation. Land devoted to project X cannot be devoted to project Y. More land also means greater distances to traverse. This is a spatial opportunity cost.
There is a tension between the risk of gold plating (focus on benefits to the exclusion of cost) and of corner cutting (focusing on costs to the exclusion of benefits). But there is available to us a balance, building something which maximizes the difference between benefits and costs, not just looking at benefits or costs. Insufficient attention is placed on the trade-off, too much on the ends by advocates of one side or the other.
When we are out-of-balance, people distrust that their tax money is wisely spent. If people see lots of examples of mis-expenditure, they will cut how much they are willing to allocate to transportation. Mis-expenditure thus causes the system to deteriorate in two ways. First it reduces inputs to the system, money that could be spent. Second it allocates money away from genuine public needs (starting with adequate maintenance and operation of existing facilities) and towards unnecessary wants, thereby increasing unmet needs.
We need to break this cycle of distrust if we want to adequately fund transportation needs (not wants). This requires institutional changes in how transportation services are provided. Asking the same people for more money is unlikely to be very successful. As has been mis-attributed to Benjamin Franklin: Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

Delaware OKs neo-Nazi group in ‘Adopt A Highway’ program

USA Today reportsDelaware OKs neo-Nazi group in ‘Adopt A Highway’ program

Delaware should do what Missouri did, when the National Socialist Movement adopted a highway in Springfield, rename the highway. Missouri renamed the highway after Rabbi Abraham Joshua Herschel, as discussed in this NY Times article.
Apparently this kind of behavior happens in lots of states. Wikipedia even has an article on it.
As Jake says: I hate Illinois Nazis.