Heilmeier’s Catechism

I saw a presentation by Prof. Sheldon Jacobson yesterday, and he mentioned following Heilmeier’s Catechism as a criteria for successful NSF proposals. I had not heard of this, so looked it up, and it is worth repeating:
Heilmeier’s Catechism:

A set of questions credited to Heilmeier that anyone proposing a research project or product development effort should be able to answer.

  • What are you trying to do? Articulate your objectives using absolutely no jargon.
  • How is it done today, and what are the limits of current practice?
  • What’s new in your approach and why do you think it will be successful?
  • Who cares?
  • If you’re successful, what difference will it make?
  • What are the risks and the payoffs?
  • How much will it cost?
  • How long will it take?
  • What are the midterm and final “exams” to check for success?

We have an insufficient number of Catechisms dictating the practicalities of academic research.

To Game or Not to Game: Teaching Transportation Planning with Board Games

Recently published:

Traditional “chalk and talk” teaching in civil engineering is gradually being replaced with active learning that focuses on encouraging students to discover knowledge with innovative pedagogical methods and tools. One interesting such tool is the board game. This research examines the efficacy of adopting transportation board games as a tool in graduate-level transportation planning and transportation economics classes at the University of Minnesota from 2008 to 2011. The Department of Civil Engineering offered these courses with transportation board games on weekday nights. Students were asked to evaluate the effects of the games on their learning and to write self-reflective essays about their findings. The postgame survey revealed that the students’ understanding of the planning process, network deployment, and practical issues, and their ability to form opinions about transportation planning had improved. Student essays on the game economy and its implications on planning further validated that the learning outcomes derived from this game process met the pedagogical goals. This analysis shows that students who are oriented toward learning more on the basis of the visual, sensing, active, or sequential learning styles, with all else being equal, tend to learn more effectively through this approach than those who do not share these learning styles. Overall, this research suggests that properly incorporating board games into the curriculum can enhance students’ learning in transportation planning.

Stairing us in the face





There are lots of social engineering messages to get people to take the stairs instead of the
elevator. I normally do this if I can, and agree that it is probably healthier (though the energy  savings is small).

However, the state of our stairs is disrepair and disgrace. Many of our buildings were not designed for this new trend, and stairs seemed to be only intended for fire emergencies.
To wit, some pictures of my favorite staircases, which I use regularly at the University of Minnesota. Clearly no one has got the message that stairs should be at least as attractive as elevators, even if they are fire emergency stairs.The first photo is a staircase at the Washington Avenue Parking Ramp (Garage for those outside the Midwest). It is at least painted, and has windows, but one would hardly call it nice. It functions not just as a transportation corridor for people, but also for drains, making it easy to service, like your utility room.
The second photo is from the same building, but a different staircase. Not even as attractive as the first. Without windows or natural light, not carpeted nor tiled, the walls painted with an undifferentiated institutional color.

The third photo is from the Civil Engineering building, this is a side entrance, not intended by the architects as anything but for service, yet it is the fastest way in and out of that highly circuitous building from the south and it gets a lot of traffic.

Compare this with your most recent elevator ride. If it was the CE building, it was admittedly equally decrepit, but the elevators there are under repair. In other buildings, the elevator is usually a much a nicer ride. Why?

If we want people to take the stairs, let’s make the stairs just a little bit nicer.

There’s no business like snow business | streets.mn

Cross-posted at streets.mn: There’s no business like snow business :

There’s no business like snow business


Snow is a popular topic in the Great White North. Julie wrote A Salute To Snowy Streets, while Reuben discovers What snow teaches us about roads .

I had a media inquiry a year ago on “Why we become such bad drivers when it snows”, I didn’t take it, but the question is interesting in a sense. Unlike the rain in southern California, it always snows in Central Minnesota, so this is a recurring question.

Several things happen when it snows:


1. Roads are slipperier and require longer braking distances. People recognize that roads are slipperier and give increased spacing (following headway in the jargon) to the car in front. Instead of following at a 2 second headway (remember the 2 second rule from Driver’s Ed), they may follow at a 3 second headway. Since there are 3600 seconds in an hour, a 2 second headway implies 1800 vehicles per hour (traffic engineers will note of course that capacities per lane on freeways are often greater than this in good conditions, implying a shorter than 2 second headway). A three second headway implies a service flow or capacity (Qmax) of 1200 vehicles per hour. If the underlying demand (those who want to use the bottleneck at that time) remains unchanged at 1800 vph (say it snowed surprisingly in the middle of the day), then instead of serving 1800 cars, a bottleneck would serve only 1200 in an hour. This implies a queue 600 cars long. That is non-trivial.

2. Roads are slipperier. People recognize that roads are slipperier and drive slower to reduce braking distances, especially on roads which curve.


Kyte et al. “The effects of poor weather conditions on free-flow speed on a rural Interstate freeway are considered. It was found that free-flow speed is affected by pavement conditions, visibility, and wind speeds. It is also suggested that poor weather conditions occur with some degree of frequency in a number of U.S. cities and that the effects of poor weather should be considered in such cases as part of capacity and level-of-service analyses.”

3. Roads are slipperier. People insufficiently recognize that roads are slipperier and instead of giving increased spacing choose to crash into the vehicle in front of them. This temporarily reduces capacity to zero as the drivers sort out the situation.


Khattak and Knaap “significant increase was observed when winter snow event injury and noninjury crash rates (crashes per million vehicle kilometers) were compared with equivalent winter nonsnow event injury and noninjury crash rates. The data were then analyzed for injury occurrence. Results of a logit model indicated that crash injury occurrence on Interstate highways in Iowa depended on traffic, road geometry, and number of vehicles involved in a crash. Another finding from the logit model was that crashes during snow events were less injurious compared with equivalent nonsnow event crashes. Snow event–specific crash data were then analyzed to study the effects of snow event elements (e.g., snowfall intensity) on injury occurrence in vehicular crashes.”

4. Snow does in fact reduce demand. People choose not to go out when it snows. Arthur Huang and I conducted some research on Minnesota travel patterns statewide and found these elasticities (so if it snows, there is a 5.9% reduction in demand and 63.9% increase in crashes in the 3am to 9am time period). The reduction in demand seems to be less than the reduction in capacity, so queueing increases on roads at or near capacity in the absence of snow.


Demand Crashes
3am-9am -0.059 0.639
9am-3pm -0.092 0.926
3pm-9pm -0.115 0.752
9pm – 12am -0.091 0.814
all day -0.079

A. Huang, D. Levinson / Journal of Safety Research 41 (2010) 513–520

Others have found significant results as well:

Datla and Sharma “The commuter roads experience lowest reductions in traffic volume due to cold (up to 14%) while the recreational roads experience highest reduction (up to 31%). Impact of cold on off-peak hours (-10% to -15%) is generally higher than peak hours (-6% to -10%) for commuter roads and an opposite pattern is observed for recreational roads (peak hour reductions of 30–58% and off-peak hour reductions of 18–30%). A clear indication of reduction in traffic volume due to snow is also observed for all types of highways.”

So I wouldn’t say we become bad drivers. We are bad drivers, we just reveal it when the environment changes to the unexpected.

(This presents one more argument for robot cars. They can’t overcome the physics of braking distance or eliminate congestion, but they can in principle better assess road conditions and be less likely to crash.)


Al Hassan, Y., and Derek J. Barker. “The impact of unseasonable or extreme weather on traffic activity within Lothian region, Scotland.” Journal of Transport Geography 7.3 (1999): 209-213.

Huang, Arthur, and David Levinson. “The effects of daylight saving time on vehicle crashes in Minnesota.” Journal of Safety Research 41.6 (2010): 513-520.

Khattak, Aemal J., and Keith K. Knapp. “Interstate highway crash injuries during winter snow and nonsnow events.” Transportation Research Record: Journal of the Transportation Research Board 1746.-1 (2001): 30-36.

Datla, Sandeep, and Satish Sharma. “Impact of cold and snow on temporal and spatial variations of highway traffic volumes.” Journal of Transport Geography 16.5 (2008): 358-372.

Kyte, Michael, et al. “Effect of weather on free-flow speed.” Transportation Research Record: Journal of the Transportation Research Board 1776.-1 (2001): 60-68.

Rooney Jr, John F. “The urban snow hazard in the United States: An appraisal of disruption.” Geographical Review (1967): 538-559.

Smith, Brian L., et al. “An investigation into the impact of rainfall on freeway traffic flow.” 83rd annual meeting of the Transportation Research Board, Washington DC. 2004.
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Annual Accessibility Measure for the Twin Cities Metropolitan Region


Recently published:

“This report summarizes previous phases of the Access to Destinations project and applies the techniques developed over the course of the project to conduct an evaluation of accessibility in the Twin Cities metropolitan region for 2010. It describes a methodology that can be used to implement future evaluations of accessibility, including a discussion of the development and use of software tools created for this evaluation. The goal of the 2010 accessibility evaluation is twofold: it seeks both to generate an accurate representation of accessibility in 2010, and to identify data sources, methods, and metrics that can be used in future evaluations. The current focus on establishing replicable data sources and methodology in some cases recommends or requires changes from those used in previous Access to Destinations research. In particular, it is important to standardize data sources and parameters to ensure comparability between multiple evaluations over time. This evaluation recommends data sources and methodology that provide a good representation of actual conditions, that are based on measurements rather than models that provide a reasonable expectation of continuity in the future and that are usable with a minimum of manual processing and technical expertise.”

QRious sidewalks


ST sends me to Rio (via AP) which reports Bar codes on sidewalks give tourist info:

“Rio de Janeiro is mixing technology with tradition to provide tourists information about the city by embedding bar codes into the black and white mosaic sidewalks that are a symbol of the city.”

This might be a solution to improving navigability, though I think it will puzzle archeologists in 1000 years. The problem of course is it makes people look (1) at their phones rather than the city, and (2) at the sidewalk instead of what’s in front of them.

Should we end the Federal Surface-Transportation Program ?

Reihan Salam at NRO on Ending the Federal Surface-Transportation Program Might Be Crazy in a Good Way :

So far, the most attractive realistic proposal for reforming federal highway expenditures is ‘Fix It First, Expand It Second, Reward It Third: A New Strategy for America’s Highways’ by Matthew Kahn and David Levinson, which calls for the following:

First, all revenues from the existing federal gasoline tax would be devoted to repair, maintain, rehabilitate, reconstruct, and enhance existing roads and bridges on the National Highway System. Second, funding for states to build new and expand existing roads would come from a newly created Federal Highway Bank, which would require benefit-cost analysis to demonstrate the efficacy of a new build. Third, new and expanded transportation infrastructure that meets or exceeds projected benefits would receive an interest rate subsidy from a Highway Performance Fund to be financed by net revenues from the Federal Highway Bank.

But now Rohit Aggarwala of Bloomberg Philanthropies has called for a more radical approach, which might garner bipartisan support while forcing believers in competitive federalism to ‘put up or shut up.’ The proposal closely resembles an idea floated by Christopher Papagianis, my erstwhile Economics 21 colleague. Aggarwalla calls for abolition of the federal gasonline tax and the devolution of responsibility over surface transportation to state governments:
Getting rid of the tax would force a serious discussion in each state about how, and how much, to fund roads and transit. States could choose to reimpose the same tax, or they could set a different rate based on their desired level of transportation spending. They could choose to raise other kinds of revenue to pay for roads and transit — such as sales taxes, property taxes, local taxes or tolls. Or they could simply reduce their transportation spending. “

I have been thinking about this for a while.
In the wake of MAP-21, it is worth reflecting on “Why is there a federal role?” In short the argument against are that the system exists, most is traffic local, and the states are perfectly capable of managing and preserving the system, since they already do. All they need to do is raise their gas tax by the amount the federal tax is reduced, and they are no worse off (assuming all federal transportation funds come from the Highway Trust Fund, which is less true than it used to be.
The federal role could be reduced to research (which might look self-serving as I am a researcher, but I support a federal role for this outside my field as well, since research is a public good with positive externalities), and safety regulations.
One argument against the Aggarwala position is that it is needlessly cumbersome to to fight 50 gas tax fights in 50 states, there is a strong convenience of existing revenue source, and this greatly reduces political transaction costs, since it is the status quo.
A second argument against is that we essentially need to rebuild the Interstate in place, and this recapitalization is a national need, just as the initial construction was, justifying a national funding source. We would not want one state to let its existing Interstates devolve to rubble due to poverty, even if it mostly hurt them. I don’t think that would happen (at least not at a large scale), but clearly different states would have different investment levels without the federal minimum funds.
I suggested in Enterprising Roads that state DOTs be transformed to be more like public utility than a branch of government.
Norton (in Fighting Traffic) defines ” a public utility was not just an enterprise ‘of real public importance,’ but also one in which competition was unfeasible.” That seems to be an accurate representation of most roads in the US. We could argue about long distance roads being competitive, but there are large network economies at the local level, and while we could think about what might happen with atomistic competition (a really neat idea), it is not practical implementability in the short run.
We don’t have or need federal funding of the backbone public utility electric grid (though there is regulation, and I am sure some subsidies somewhere), and seem to do ok, surely roads are similar. However, in the absence of that public utility transformation and movement to fuller understanding of direct user fees as the best funding source, avoiding 50 political battles and relying on the status quo funding (which is also an indirect user fee) for a few more years, and directing that existing funding, seems to me a good second-best solution, better than immediate complete devolution. Of course, one could argue that devolution might help force the transformation, so this is not obvious.
Looking for rationales for the highway program I stumbled on the following. In part this falls under the category: We have learned nothing in 30 (60) ((90)) years. The following paper could easily have been written today.
Gomez-Ibañez, Jose, (1985) Chapter 7 “The Federal Role in Urban Transportation” in
Quigley, John M., and Daniel L. Rubinfeld, editors American Domestic Priorities: An Economic Appraisal. Berkeley: University of California Press.

The Rationale for Federal Aid
Whatever the appropriate level of urban highway investment, one key issue is why the federal government should be so heavily involved. Since 70 percent of the United States population lives in urban areas, the majority of the country clearly has a strong interest in urban highways. At least in theory, however, our federal system reserves powers and responsibilities to state and local governments unless some compelling and distinct national interest is involved. This devolution of responsibilities is based both on democratic ideals and the pragmatic argument that those who are closest to a problem often know best how to solve it.
The principal rationale for federal highway aid programs has been the national interest in an intercity transportation system that serves long-distance or interstate as well as local traffic. When federal highway aid began in 1916, the road system was largely unpaved and road construction and maintenance were the responsibility of county governments. The counties were notorious for their failure to cooperate in improving roads that served more than one county, perhaps because their dependence on property tax revenues made it difficult to finance improvements that served more than local needs. An interconnected road system would benefit all, it was argued, by promoting interstate commerce and reducing the social and political isolation of rural communities. The federal government gave highway aid directly to state governments, on the theory that states would have more interest than counties in promoting an intercity highway system.[18]
While federal intervention may have been needed to promote an interconnected highway system seventy years ago, it may be unnecessary today. Thanks in part to early federal aid, each state now finances and administers its own system of trunk highways, leaving county and city governments responsible mainly for local or secondary roads. Federal aid may not be necessary even to induce states to build a coordinated interstate highway system. In the decade before the Interstate System was funded,
for example, many Eastern and Central states cooperated in the construction of an interconnected system of limited-access toll expressways that allowed motorists to travel between New York and Chicago or Boston and Albany without ever having to stop for an intersection or traffic light. Toll financing had eliminated the problem of using local taxes to support interstate travel and by 1956, when Interstate funding ended the boom, around 12,000 miles of toll expressways had been built, started, authorized, or projected.[19]
To the extent that there is a distinct national interest in the highway system, it applies more clearly to roads that primarily serve long-distance and interstate rather than local travelers. Although Interstate System planners rationalized the inclusion of urban segments on the grounds that interstate traffic often originates or terminates in urban areas, urban expressways probably have a limited claim to federal aid, since their design is largely dictated by peak-hour local commuting traffic.
Perhaps the strongest argument for a federal role is in the areas of highway research and demonstration projects. Research on pavement durability, highway planning techniques, and highway safety measures is of potential benefit to all states. Since no single state captures all the benefits, there is little incentive for a state to fund research alone. The federal government, however, can consider the benefits to all states in designing its research program.

He also wrote a section on Mass Transit

The Federal Rationale
The rationale for federal involvement in urban mass transit shares many of the weaknesses of the rationale for federal aid to urban highways. The argument most often cited in the early 1960s debates over the initial federal capital grant program was the need to counterbalance federal highway aid. The federal and state highway trust funds, all financed with dedicated gasoline taxes, were thought to have induced state and local governments to channel too much capital spending into highways and too little into mass transit. Transit had declined because of undercapitalization, the argument continued, and federal transit aid was needed to correct the imbalance.[47]
The failure of the transit investments of the 1970s to increase ridership significantly suggests that undercapitalization was probably not a major cause of the decline of mass transit patronage. Rising real household incomes, suburbanization of jobs and residences, and other demographic trends probably played more important roles in the postwar patronage losses. Even if local governments had seriously over-invested in highways and underinvested in transit, a massive new transit aid program may not have been the correct answer. By subsidizing both the highway and transit modes the federal government might reduce the balance between transit and highways only at the risk of overcapitalizing transportation in general. Reducing or eliminating the federal highway aid program might have encouraged more balanced spending on all forms of transportation.

18. Gifford, “The Federal Role in Roads”; Burch, Highway Revenue and Expenditure continue
Policy ; and John B. Rae, The Car and the Road in American Life (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT, 1972).
19. Rae, The Car and the Road , pp. 173-82.
47. For examples of this argument see Lyle C. Fitch and Associates, Transportation and Public Policy (San Francisco, Calif.: Chandler, 1964); Thomas E. Lisco, “Mass Transportation: Cinderella in Our Cities,” The Public Interest no. 18 (1970): 52-74. The contrast between the overcapitalization and the demographic hypotheses was shown most clearly in George W. Hilton, “The Urban Mass Transportation Assistance Program,” pp. 131-44 in Perspectives on Federal Transportation Policy , ed. James C. Miller, III (Washington, D.C.: American Enterprise Institute, 1975); and George W. Hilton, Federal Transit Subsidies (Washington, D.C.: American Enterprise Institute, 1974).