Seven hours in New York City

I was briefly in New York yesterday. By briefly I mean I left Minneapolis when it was daylight, and returned and it was still daylight. This is of course much easier to accomplish when you are near the summer solstice, but still it suggests the technical feasibility, though definitely not the desirability, of cross-continental commutes.

On the Minneapolis side, things went very smoothly. I left my house at 5:45 AM, caught the bus at 5:53, was at the LRT by 6:00, caught the ~6:03 LRT to the airport and was there by 6:20. Security was quick, the weather was good, the 8:05 flight was on-time.

Some comments on transportation in America’s largest city.

For a city with so many airline passengers, and presumably airline profits, some of the airport terminals (JFK Terminal 2) are still quite dumpy (Yes there is a plan to fix this). One would think that if there were competitive owners of each different airport (and each terminal), they would have to compete for customers (both passengers and airlines) by differentiating quality (presumably upwards). Though there has been some terminal modernization, New York is far behind the rest of western (and eastern) civilization in this arena.

Second, there is not good transit access from the airports to the City. New York, with the US’s largest subway system has had more than 50 years since the dawn of the jet age to connect its airports to its transit system successfully, and seems to have failed to avail itself. (I am aware of JFK’s AirTrain, it seems to require a separate charge from the transit system and a transfer, surely someone could figure out how to bundle that. It also required taking the subway with 33 stops to my Midtown destination). This is not an unknown problem, and solutions are proposed for LaGuardia (via Bus, apparently the train proposal was shelved) and JFK (at about $10B, which seems excessive, but this is NYC).

At any rate, someone else was paying for my surface transportation, so I was in a car. (Which I realize makes me part of the problem, not the solution, but also gives me the perspective of enlightened commentators such as Dorothy Rabinowitz. Yet I did not notice any problems with CitiBikes on my brief stay. There were some bicycles darting in and out of traffic, but that was because cars were not moving and bikes could). On the way in I also got to hear the political philosophy of my driver (a well-educated Russian immigrant from over 30 years ago), who is probably best described as a Peter King Republican, which probably would not have happened on a subway train. The driver seemed to be of the belief that bus lanes were a bad idea because they delayed cars, and in general was opposed to the Bloomberg administration. He also thought most of the works were badly managed and timed poorly (this I agree with) so the Unions could flex their power, and that trucks should only enter the city at night. Of course where you stand depend on where you sit.

Third, New York has far more street traffic congestion than it should. Of course it is crowded, and it probably shouldn’t build more highways, but it doesn’t manage scarce roadspace the way a well-managed city would.

  • On the way in to the city, one of the lanes on the Queens Midtown Expressway was blocked so someone (1 person) could sweep the shoulder, with a broom, in the middle of the day. To be charitable, maybe there was recent broken glass that required cleaning, but this seemed far more substantial cleaning than the debris from a fender-bender. The queues formed by the lane closure were several miles in length.
  • Why is on-street parking permitted in the middle of the day on both sides of the street on major congested streets (37th Street)? This seems to be more than loading/unloading and more than temporary construction crews.
  • And why is don’t block the box not enforced. This would seem a perfect opportunity to use red light running cameras to ticket people who block cross-traffic on the red light.

This is even before considering what economists normally think about when they say pricing, some form of congestion charge, which has been proposed and not implemented because the winners could not bring themselves to pay off the losers.

Fourth, why is there congestion at the airport on a clear day with as perfect weather as one could ask for? Leaving LaGuardia, we boarded the plane on-time and the plane was 17th for take-off with about 40 minutes of ground wait. We landed “on time”, meaning the airline (Delta) built in 45 minutes of ground delay into the schedule to ensure “on time” arrivals. If the schedule is such that the same flights are repeated daily (an approximation), then our plane would take off at the same time every day regardless (unless it was worse due to weather). Which means, we could have been scheduled a half-hour later and not waited in the plane on the ground. This is a simple coordination problem that could be solved with reservation pricing. I suspect this is a problem because there are competing airlines which want to offer the same departure time (~6:45 pm), but a monopoly airport. In a different airport a dominant (hub) airline might internalize the delay costs. See Daniel (1995) on Congestion Pricing and Capacity of Large Hub Airports: A Bottleneck Model with Stochastic Queues.

What are the big trends that will shape transport?

Alan Davies (The Urbanist) posts: What are the big trends that will shape transport?  He riffs on my previous piece and Reihan Salam’s summary with an Australian take (numbers refer to Salam’s piece).

  • (re trend 1. [new federalism]) I think this trend is more relevant to the US than Australia at this time, although Tony Abbott’s promise that a government led by him wouldn’t fund urban public transport might herald a structural change.
  • (re trend 2.) The high cost and political difficulty of retro-fitting transport infrastructure in dense urban areas means the emphasis must necessarily shift to making existing infrastructure work better e.g. by road pricing; better networking; giving road space to other modes.
  • (re trend 3.) The fuel excise in Australia isn’t hypothecated to roads, but it’s a very big revenue source. It brought in $15.5 billion in 2008/09 ($10 billion net). It would’ve been much more if indexation hadn’t been removed in 2001.
  • (re trend 7.) I expect car-sharing (actually it’s more like car rental – riding a train is sharing) will grow, but still only account for a microscopic share of total travel. Widespread use of autonomous cars is the only way I see it possibly having a significant role.
  • (re trend 8.) The dominant view among researchers is electronic communications increase the demand for face-to-face contact – and hence increase the demand for travel – rather than reduce it.
  • (re trend 9.) What Prof Levinson calls consumer sovereignty also applies in other areas like specialist health care.
  • (re trend 10.) I think the interesting trend Prof Levinson identifies is crowd-sourcing information from travellers in real-time via their smartphones and GPS e.g. Tom Tom congestion index.
  • (re trend 12) The primary change here is people study longer and so enter the workforce later; and retire (or go part-time) earlier.
  • (re trend 13) The likely timing is arguable, but when they get critical mass autonomous vehicles will likely constitute an enormous change to transport and land use.

Davies notes in a footnote: “There seems to be an inconsistency here – [excluding road pricing] there are even fewer implementations of autonomous cars. He also confines himself to technology trends, yet changes in working hours don’t fit that description well”

First: I acknowledge that road pricing exists more now than 40 years ago (a few urban implementations of cordons, a few HOT lanes, some time of day pricing on toll roads, bridges, and tunnels), so perhaps it is unfair to exclude, but its growth rate is really really slow. Toll shares of US transport revenue hovers in the 5-6% territory and isn’t changing much. So, to my disappointment, I don’t think it is a trend shaping transportation. I have become a pessimist on the actual adoption of road pricing in a significant way on existing facilities, aside from HOT lanes. While I can foresee an Odometer tax replacing the gas tax at some point, I am doubtful there will be widespread peak discounting, or that it will shape people’s behavior much at the level it will be set at.

Second: Autonomous cars, certainly there are fewer autonomous cars than toll roads. The mileage of successful tests for autonomous cars is growing at an exponential rate, and is looking primed for take-off. This is more speculative than some others. However this feels like a trend which will shape transport.

Third: Changes in working hours are due to increased productivity, primarily the increasing embeddedness of information technologies in general practice of everything that we do, so I think this is a social implication of a technology.

Why transportation doesn’t get the money it “needs”

In the transportation community we tend to think surface transportation is underfunded. We think there are “needs” unmet. National reports from industry groups say more resources are required. Local reports are similar. Economists have a problem with the word “needs”, but the term in transportation has come to mean things for which the benefits outweigh the costs (subject to the usual debates about what are the benefits and costs of any given project).

Certainly the quality of services could  always be improved, pavement repaired, bridges strengthened, bus stops made more useful, buses modernized, etc. Money would enable us to do any of these things.

Therefore, the solution must be more money. Yet the sector doesn’t get more money at the federal level, or in most states. So if costs are low, and there are clearly needs, why can’t it close the gap?Some hypotheses:

  1. The industry is saturated. One concern is that maybe the amount of resources to do the work is limited, so we can’t physically get more infrastructure built. If there were a limited number of contractors, and they were all fully employed, more money would simply mean higher prices and a reshuffling of priorities not new building. Further, there are steep barriers to entry, I can’t just start a road construction company. So if they are fully employed now, all they would do is demand higher rates, defer something else, to do the new thing. Contractors of course probably claim they are not fully deployed, and certainly could add some employees and acquire additional materials. How high is capacity utilization in the road construction? How close to fully employed is the sector?  Nationally, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment in NAICS 237200 – Highway Street, and Bridge Construction was:

    From a 2006 peak, the sector was once 20% larger in employment. Clearly a lot of this is due to the effects of the recession on local government spending, but recovery is very, very weak.

    It is hard to conclude that even 2006 was “full utilization”, there is always elasticity (if wages are high enough, some people will put off retirement, others will be attracted to work in the sector). Some equipment can be transferred from building other types of projects to road construction. New equipment can be ordered, equipment and labor can be moved from other states. The real world is not black and white, but as capacity utilization increases, prices increase faster than output. However in the absence of full utilization, prices should be relatively cheap. If firms don’t need to go to extra effort to hire workers and machinery, (i.e. they would otherwise be idle or working at marginal tasks), prices will be stable.

    The analogy here is a bottleneck. At well below capacity, travelers can proceed at free flow speed. Only as capacity approaches does delay (higher prices) result.

  2. Money won’t go to needs. Political rent-seeking will divert funds from what matters. Cynical as this may be, there is some evidence for this. The construction industry itself is indifferent to what is built, so will happily support any spending. It is the users/taxpayers who suffer from the misallocation of resources, not only in the opportunity cost of what isn’t done, but the future maintenance burden of supporting what was done. Spending money may solve today’s macro-economic unemployment problem, but spending it poorly creates future problems. We have no evidence that giving more money will result in it being spent on the things we care about.
  3. Transportation doesn’t need (much) more money:
    • Weak version: People don’t perceive the same needs as industry does. Most roads and bridges are in good enough shape. Most people drive on those good-enough roads. The perception is limited to what people actually travel on. As Charles Lane says: “So how come my family and I traveled thousands of miles on both the east and west coasts last summer without actually seeing any crumbling roads or airports?” Even Lane acknowledges “The United States probably needs more infrastructure spending. It also needs a serious debate about how much cash to invest and how to invest it. Alarmism promotes the former, not the latter.”
    • Strong version: The industry is wrong. There is in fact no need. Not only don’t we need new roads, the existing roads are fine too. There is already enough money flowing through the system to keep the it in a state of good-enough repair. So what if a bridge collapses every few years, that is nothing compared to other social problems, like the 35,000 people killed each year in car crashes. Conditions are getting better.
    • While existing roads are in fine condition, they are congested, so we need more new and wider roads. The purported need for maintenance is just a distraction put forth by the greens to avoid new construction.
  4. People see the problem but don’t care about the social outcomes. They would rather have the large screen TV than pay for the better road as some surveys gas taxes repeatedly find their unpopularity.
  5. There is a need, but I don’t like roads. We have too many roads as it is. Deterioration is a form of traffic calming, so we should encourage it..

My take:

In short, I think the road-building sector is far from fully utilized, there is a lot of slack to handle more road building. More expenditures in road building should not significantly drive up prices at this time.

But, what would it be spent on? I am sympathetic to the claim that more money won’t actually go to needs. I am also sympathetic to the perception bias problem. There is only a problem if you see it every day. Lots of roads are in good enough condition, and bridges don’t fall down with alarming frequency. However it is clear Charles Lane did not travel on the signalized arterials near my house.

The Minnesota gas tax was last raised in 2008 (with a multi-year phase-in), and with all of the stars aligned for an increase: business community endorsements, DFL legislature in both houses, the Senate actually willing to vote for it, and the House too, with some encouragement, the Governor pooh-poohed an increase and said we need another information gathering campaign, and suggested that it can be done next year, which is an election year. Worse, all Governor Dayton could think to do was build a bridge to Wisconsin. The edifice complex, infrastructure infatuation edition, will suck away a lot of the funds.

Certainly any taxes are unpopular, but there is an issue of framing with any polls, and a general problem of the public not believing that user fees are dedicated to transportation, even when the law says it is. Sure marketing and education campaigns would help, but there are fundamental issues of trust. This is an institutional problem, which can be rectified by separation of roads from the executive branch into a public utility.

Heart of Midtown threatened by widening of I-94 [in Detroit]

Opinion: Heart of Midtown threatened by widening of I-94.

I read this headline to my students, who started laughing.

Detroit, yes Detroit, Michigan is looking to widen a major highway, because presumably, it is the lack of highway access that is constraining economic growth. Obviously these are different agencies doing the planning, but in an era of peak travel nationally, what must the travel demand statistics look like in a declining city like Detroit.

Yet another example of zombie transportation.

Pricing with and without Reservations

The Twin Cities freeway system, like many places, is designed so everyone who wants to use a freeway can do so on-demand by showing up and getting on the road (or queueing at a ramp meter waiting for the opportunity). The Twin Cities also has a MnPass system on some of its freeways, which it plans to expand.

MnPass System of Dynamic Pricing
MnPass System of Dynamic Pricing

The MnPass High Occupancy/Toll (HOT) lanes guarantee free-flow travel times, but have tolls which vary systematically over time-of-day (rising during the peak period), or in modern installations, dynamically. In the case of dynamic tolls (like MnPass), they are intended to ensure the toll is high enough to prevent congestion (ensure the level of traffic is far enough below capacity that bottlenecks are not activated, and if temporary queues are formed they are quickly discharged.) However with the dynamic toll,  travelers don’t know what it is until they are about to decide between using the priced lane or not. (It is capped at $8.00, but the price has variability).

Almost everywhere else, we guarantee the price on a road ($0) with variable travel time.

We thus have either uncertainty on price with certainty on time, or certainty on price and uncertainty on time. We should be able to have certainty about both of these, assuming we allow the price to be non-zero.

First-come, first-serve is not the only way to allocate space. We don’t allocate table space that way during prime time at nice restaurants. We don’t generally allocate airline seats that way. We don’t have to allocate roads that way.

We could, for instance, have reservation pricing (which has been proposed for intersections in a real-time way). At its most basic level, for instance, every day the commuter pre-purchases a ticket to use a particular road segment (e.g. between exit 400 and exit 401) during a particular time slot (say between 7:45 and 8:00). The ticket cost is known in advance before departure, like a plane ticket. The road agency would only sell as many tickets as the road would accommodate (without congestion) at that period. The ticket would be validated electronically through some form of Electronic Toll Collection.

But, roads are not like airplanes, the traveler might arrive at 7:44 or 8:01, does the road agency force the car onto the shoulders? More likely they just charge a penalty which increases with deviation from the purchased window. So if the charge were $2, there might be a $0.10/minute surcharge added for each minute early or late the traveler was.

If the system were deployed universally, congestion would be a rarer occurrence (seeing only non-recurring congestion, due to crashes and other incidents, not the daily recurring congestion because of excess demand for the available capacity). Further the system would know whether the traveler or the agency was the caused the earliness or lateness. If there were non-recurring congestion, it might waive the penalty. If on the other hand the traveler left too early or too late to reasonably make their slot under planned for circumstances, the surcharge would stand.

But travelers don’t want to map out their route every day. OK, the agency can probably just sell a ticket allowing travelers to be “on the roads” (as opposed to being on a specific road), and let individual travelers sort out the best path. The losses from not micro-managing spatially are relatively small, compared to the gains from spreading traffic out by time of day. See the literature on Macroscopic Fundamental Diagrams about this.

In this case, the traveler pre-purchases a ticket to use any metropolitan area road between 7:00 and 7:30 am, but the number of passes is limited by system capacity. If purchase is made far enough in advance there is a lower price then if the ticket is bought real time. But no-one wants to plan their schedule that far in advance, or log-in daily spending even 5 minutes to buy tickets for a 20 minute trip.

Here the road agency managing the system can be a little bit more clever. They could sell various types of season passes (just like transit agencies). A traveler might buy an unlimited use pass for a premium, but there would be a limited number sold to residents of each zip code (if spatially fixed, passes would not be transferrable, the electronic transponder would be linked to a license plate) (or any other local geography that makes sense, the key is there is still finite space on the roads, and too many pass-holders from a wealthy suburb won’t save time just because there is excess capacity elsewhere). Or they could buy a more limited use pass at a lower price. And of course, travelers would buy these as recurring subscriptions, billed to a credit or debit card.

People without passes could take their chances with same-day tickets which might be more expensive if traffic is on the edge of congestion, or cheap if traffic is low that day.

If set up properly, these passes replace existing revenue sources for the agency.

How should the agency allocate these passes? Clearly it should not just give them away. But setting a fixed  price and selling them does not real allow discovery of demand patterns. Here Dutch or Vickrey auctions might be appropriate. For instance, the passes would be available at a posted price (‘buy-it-now’), but the agency would also accept lower bids. Suppose there were 100 passes, there would be a bidding period, and at the end of the period, the top 100 bids would win and the price would be set at the willingness to pay of the 100th bidder. There are many variations on auctions, which each have advantages for buyers or sellers in terms of maximizing revenue or price discovery or fairness.

Road Fees Don’t Hurt the Poor as Much as You Might Think

Eric Jaffe at The Atlantic Cities says: Road Fees Don’t Hurt the Poor as Much as You Might Think – :

“Altshuler bases his position on a couple surveys conducted in metro areas that have adopted HOT lanes in the recent past. One was done in San Diego circa 2001. At that time, about 80 percent of low-income respondents agreed with the concept that people should be able to use an express lane on Interstate 15 for a fee — a greater percentage of agreement than people from high-income brackets (70 percent). Additionally, two thirds of people who didn’t even use the lanes still supported them.

A similar survey was done in 2006 in Minnesota. That work showed a 60 percent approval rate for HOT lanes on Interstate 394. A stronger analysis of this corridor, done by Tyler Patterson and David Levinson [PDF], found that income levels did predict use of the express lane (with higher-income drivers using them more often), but that lower-income drivers could also benefit from the shift of traffic out of the free lanes (as well as always having the express option in a time crunch).

(And a far more recent survey, released in April, showed that two-thirds of people making less than $50,000 a year said they’d use express toll lanes — the same percentage as people making more than that.)”

My comprehensive review of the topic is: Levinson, David (2010) Equity Effects of Road Pricing: A Review. Transport Reviews 30(1) 33-57.

The NCHRP had a report on this as well: Equity of Evolving Transportation Finance Mechanisms.

A key point is that HOT lanes also enable freeway BRT where it might otherwise be unaffordable to construct. The express lanes are uncongested and can be used by buses to maintain speed. An example is the I-35W corridor (Orange Line) south of downtown Minneapolis, which is not complete (Lake Street Station is still missing, e.g.), but has a BRT station at 46th.

The Cases for (and Against) Public and Private Networks

Now at Streets.MN “The Cases for (and Against) Public and Private Networks” by David King and me.

We have explored the case for subsidy for transit and roads in previous weeks, discussing the pros and cons of capital and operating subsidy. Yet our discussion has largely focused on individual facilities or projects. In this post we  work through how the physical structure of networks varies under public or private ownership regimes.

“Ubiquitous networks have positive returns to scale, in that the larger the network, the more valuable it is, as you can reach more destinations. Think of telephones (not very valuable if they are simply tin cans connecting you to a neighbor), transit (not very valuable if it only runs a single route), or airports (you won’t get very far if you only had direct connections, not hubs). The problem is that building ubiquitous networks requires large up-front capital expenditures and a base beyond existing users. For instance, while the Interstate Highway System was built by “user fees”, before the first mile of concrete opened, drivers (who obviously had not used the Interstate) were assessed federal motor fuel taxes on all miles traveled, not just Interstate miles. The class of drivers as a whole paid for the interstate as a whole, and ultimately benefitted as a whole. Any individual traveler may or may not have seen those benefits, or paid for them.”

Traffic on Maryland’s MD200 ICC

An update on everyone’s favorite partial outer beltway, the Intercounty Connector (ICC, MD 200) from Toll Roads News:Traffic on Maryland’s MD200 ICC picking up nicely – growth 32% to 34% over a year:

“New traffic data for the Washington area Inter County Connector MD200 tollroad shows traffic running about a third higher than a year ago. April traffic at 35,500 vehicles per segment workdays was up 34% over 26,400 of the same month last year. And the first four months of this year were up 32% over the same four months last year.”

Keep in mind this is a 6 lane very limited access roadway, and the traffic levels when untolled were about 46,000 workday toll transactions. So some learning is required on the part of travelers about what their real value of time is, and on the part of administrators about things like speed limits and revenue maximizing toll levels. Still, this must be considered disappointing at best.

PZ writes:

“I really wish that the Maryland Transit Administration would not be in such a hurry to cancel the bus service on the road, since this is service that never existed before the ICC was opened to traffic, and two years is not enough time for the service to “mature.””

.

The issue is discussed in this WaPo article. Clearly one of the key destinations Fort Meade, has lots of workers, as the home to the NSA.

My previous comments on the road are here.

Detour: Rerouting our way of thinking in traffic

Kim Ode interviewed me for the StarTribune: Detour: Rerouting our way of thinking in traffic:

“We are creatures of habit. So what happens when our driving habits are thwarted?

Apparently, we learn new habits.

David Levinson works in the department of civil engineering at the University of Minnesota, so he pays attention to such behavior. The Interstate 35 bridge failure offered an unexpected opportunity to study drivers.

Before the collapse, the bridge handled 140,000 crossings each day, he said.

‘After the collapse, we [City of Minneapolis, Hennepin County, MnDOT] counted traffic on other bridges and were at about 90,000,’ he said. ‘So 50,000 people decided they didn’t need to cross the river anymore.’

Levinson said that an industry rule-of-thumb is that one-third of drivers will take an offered detour, while others will seek their own routes or change their routines.

Once the new bridge opened, ‘a lot of people didn’t switch back, either because their new route was maybe as good, or they’d just developed a new habit,’ he said.

People don’t always take the shortest path somewhere, he added, which helps explain those who veer out of a traffic jam onto side streets in search of a route that, even though longer, lets them keep moving.

‘It’s what I call the illusion of motion,’ Levinson said.

So what’s worse? Winter or road construction? It depends.

‘In the case of winter, everyone is affected, but for a short duration until the roads are cleared,’ Levinson said. ‘Road projects affect a small amount of people, but for a long time.’

Bottom line: ‘People are happy when the road is fixed,’ he said. ‘I don’t know how happy they are that the road is being fixed.’

Kim Ode”