All posts by David Levinson

Road Pricing in the United States

A special issue of  Research in Transportation Economics — Volume 44, Pages 1-70 (June 2014) Road Pricing in the United States, edited by Mark Burris, just came out. We have a paper in here, but the others are interesting as well. This is behind a paywall, so if your University doesn’t subscribe, you can’t get it directly, but I am sure individual authors would be happy to send copies, and pre-prints may be online.

Does road pricing affect port freight activity: Recent evidence from the port of New York and New Jersey
David A. King, Cameron E. Gordon, Jonathan R. Peters

The feasibility of modernizing the Interstate highway system via toll finance
Robert W. Poole Jr.

HOT or not: Driver elasticity to price on the MnPASS HOT lanes
Michael Janson, David Levinson

Using vehicle value as a proxy for income: A case study on Atlanta’s I-85 HOT lane
Sara Khoeini, Randall Guensler

The impact of HOT lanes on carpools
Mark Burris, Negin Alemazkoor, Rob Benz, Nicholas S. Wood

Theory versus implementation in congestion-priced parking: An evaluation of SFpark, 2011-2012
Daniel G. Chatman, Michael Manville

A framework for determining road pricing revenue use and its welfare effects
Timothy F. Welch, Sabyasachee Mishra

Adventures on Transit in the Suburbs |

I had a meeting at MnDOT’s Metro Division at “Water’s Edge” in Roseville. This is a short distance (though by no means non-circuitous distance) from the Rosedale Transit Center.

To maximize irony (showing up at a suburban MnDOT office building by transit) and since it was a nice day, and because I have a 1 car household to begin with, and since I was not time strapped as this is summer, I took transit to get there.

The new 67 bus (not a new bus, a new bus route) picked me up a short distance from my home on-time, and took me to a transfer point at Minnehaha Avenue and Snelling Avenue in St. Paul where I transferred to the 84 heading northbound. I exited at the exit ramp from Snelling to County Road B2 and walked to the building.

I attended my meeting, and walked over to Rosedale to catch the return bus (and eat lunch).

This is a spiral shaped bus route. The 87 exiting Rosedale Center.
This is a spiral shaped bus route. The 87 exiting Rosedale Center.
This sidewalk at Water's Edge assumes you lose a lot of weight while walking, and get really skinny.
This sidewalk at Water’s Edge assumes you lose a lot of weight while walking, and get really skinny.
This sidewalk assumes you don't actually want to enter the building.
This sidewalk assumes you don’t actually want to enter the building.
This sidewalk along County Road B-2 is forlorn, but adequate.
This sidewalk along County Road B-2 is forlorn, but adequate.

On the return I took the 87 from Rosedale Transit Center to University Avenue and transferred there.

  1. Load Factor: Some of the buses were practically a personally limo. Though the first bus was at 8:30 in the morning, there was only 1 other passenger on-board. Because there were so few passengers, there were no delays. (Well there was a bit of a minor delay due to emergency vehicles attending to an emergency at the Days Inn on University (the eerily pre-named Tracks), but (a) it was less than 30 seconds, and (b) this seems unusual. We were so far ahead of schedule when I alighted the bus put on its flashers and waited at least one traffic light cycle to not get ahead of itself. The 84 had a modest number of folks northbound. On the 87 southbound there was also one other person for most of the trip. The 16 was not crowded. I realize this is off-peak direction in the off-peak time of day in the off-season, but maybe think about smaller buses?
  2. Ride Quality: The bus was designed with the bus-maker’s racing heritage in mind, I really got the feel of the road. This was of course compounded by the terrible local streets in Minneapolis and especially St. Paul, as well as the worn out suspension on the vehicle itself. You can measure this yourself with your smart phone.
  3. Transfers and Signage: How are people supposed to do transfers if they have never done transfers before if bus route information is not on the bus stops? The 84 was a hi-frequency route, so I could figure it out, as there was some additional signage, but the Metro Transit trip planner is not obvious about this, and other transit apps are equally bad. The reverse trip would not have been obvious. Getting real-time information on my smartphone is hit or miss, and not everyone has a smartphone. There need to be better bus top signs. The Metro Transit trip planner website which was consulted before I left in the morning said I should take the 67 on my return trip, and the bus stop indicated it stopped there (this was the bus stop nearest Raymond Avenue station, so it has recently been upgraded with a slightly more informative sign) but I didn’t know when it would arrive (sorry OMG transit did not tell me either, it must have been below the end of the screen, and getting OMG transit to update GPS seems problematic. Frankly, it’s still beta.) and a 16 bus showed up, which I was familiar with and took it to the nearest stop and had a 8 minute walk instead of 2 minutes. Figuring out transit information can take as long as the ride itself.
  4. Sidewalks: There were sidewalks on County Road B-2, but within the office complex itself, I was apparently expected to walk in the driveway. There should either be a formalized shared space (unlikely as this is a suburban office parking lot) or actual sidewalks along the driveways. Better, there would be diagonal sidewalks so that people can walk directly from Water’s Edge to Rosedale, both from the Water’s Edge building to County Road B2 just under Snelling, and from the other side of the underpass from County Road B2 to Rosedale. One imagines MnDOT employees drive out to lunch the less than 1/2 mile to Rosedale. Roseville has a program called “Living Smarter“, there is some work to do. While it might be impossible to make this city-like in its pedestrian orientation, it certainly can be better than it is.
  5. Circuity: The 87 bus exiting Rosedale seemed to take a very circuitous route within the shopping mall. It is literally a spiral (see figure). I am sure there is an internal traffic flow reason the shopping mall wants buses tearing up its pavement, but I couldn’t figure it out. There was a curb preventing the bus from crossing at other points, but surely there should be some way of allowing buses to get out quicker. This would save about a minute by my timing. The bus then went along B-2 and Fairview, and there were at least 3 stops before we left sight of the shopping mall.
  6. Contracting: The bus was operated by a contractor First Transit. Other than it was an older bus, a bit smaller, and hard to tell which bus it was unless you were in front or the right side of the bus (i.e. I almost missed it since I didn’t realize it was the bus I wanted since there was no sign on the left side of the bus where I was standing), it seemed similar in quality to the older Metro Transit fleet

Still 30 minutes end-to-end (excluding schedule delay, but including transfer time and walk time) from Rosedale Transit Station to home is tolerable, longer than driving of course, but not onerous or painful, on a nice summer day.


Cross-posted at

Riverview Corridor – Some History

While I await my copy of  the 2000 Riverview Corridor major investment study : draft report, which I cannot find online, I will remind of the history I can scrape together from a quick web search:

The Star Tribune August 27, 2000, Sunday, Metro Edition  reported (via LexisNexis):

St. Paul asks: Light rail or busway?;
Public hearings in Ramsey County soon will be airing various transit options for a corridor linking the East Side, downtown and the airport.

Kevin Duchschere; Staff Writer


LENGTH: 1135 words

As plans for the Hiawatha light-rail line in Minneapolis move forward, officials and residents in St. Paul are getting ready to jump into a light-rail debate of their own.

     At issue is the best way to shuttle people between St. Paul and Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

     A $1.15 million study released last week lists seven transit options for the area known as the Riverview Corridor, a 12-mile swath that runs from St. Paul’s East Side to downtown and along W. 7th Street to the airport area.

     The choices include three light-rail scenarios and two plans for a traffic-free busway. Several community hearings are planned in the next few weeks before the Ramsey County Regional Railroad Authority recommends one of the options to the Metropolitan Council in November.

     The study, conducted by private consultants, draws no conclusions. But its facts and figures indicate that a busway, while expected to draw fewer new riders than a light-rail line, also would cost far less than light rail and have less impact on homes, businesses and parks.

     Those findings may give Riverview an edge when Met Council officials decide this fall which metro transit route should receive $44 million in state funds for a busway, a lane set apart for speedy bus travel. While not the top route in terms of ridership potential, Riverview may get the nod from state officials eager to mollify St. Paul after awarding the first light-rail line to Minneapolis.

     Tony Bennett, chairman of the rail authority _ which consists of Ramsey County Board members _ said some may be surprised that the study considers options other than light rail, and that not all of the routes follow W. 7th Street.

     “A lot of people did not think we were looking at all the alternatives, but this report should put that issue to rest,” he said.

     The outcome for Riverview is important not just for St. Paul, but for regional transit needs.

          The Riverview Corridor is the second leg of an anticipated transit triangle that, along with the Hiawatha light-rail line and the Central Corridor between downtown Minneapolis and downtown St. Paul, would link both cities with the airport and the Mall of America in Bloomington.

     The study, 80 percent funded with federal money, was done not only to aid local decisionmakers but also to help federal officials decide whether future spending on Riverview is justified. Federal funds will be used, with state and local money, for $1.75 million worth of bus shelter and lighting improvements next spring along 7th Street and in downtown St. Paul, said Kathryn DeSpiegelaere, director of the rail authority.


Bus vs. rail

     The Riverview study outlines proposed routes, station locations, costs and expected ridership for five options involving either light rail or a dedicated busway. It also includes a “no-build” option and a low-cost strategy to improve and increase regular bus service along W. 7th Street.

     According to the study:

     – A light-rail line would cost $370 million to $405 million, depending on where it is built. The most expensive route would be along the Canadian Pacific Railway tracks, followed by a route linking the tracks with Interstate Hwy. 35E. The least expensive would be the W. 7th Street option. Annual operating costs: $13 million to $14 million.

     – A traffic-free busway along the tracks would cost $120 million to $130 million to build; the other busway option, along W. 7th Street, would cost $75 million to $85 million. Eitherbusway option would cost $10 million annually to operate.

     – About 1,100 new riders each day would use the light-rail line, as opposed to 600 to 700 new riders daily on the busway. Daily transit trips would range from 67,000 on the busway to 70,500 on light rail, and travel time between Earl Street on the East Side and the airport would range from 33 minutes on the busway to 36 minutes on light rail.

     – The light-rail options include 13 planned stations and five to six optional stations, while the busway would include 11 planned stations and an additional six proposed stations.

    Bennett said he likes the idea of a busway route on the railroad right-of-way.

     “Human nature is to say, ‘I don’t like buses,’ but they’re talking about what’s on the street today and we’re talking about something on a dedicated busway, with new and different buses . . . stopping once every mile or two at key intersections,” he said.


Other lines

    Riverview is one of three transit corridors under consideration in the East Metro area. A study on transit choices for the Central Corridor will be ready in late 2001, DeSpiegelaere said.

     And early next year the rail authority plans to release early next year a transit study on the Red Rock Corridor, which stretches along the railroad tracks between St. Paul and Hastings, she said.

     State transportation officials and legislators agreed last year to earmark $69 million over a five-year period to develop the Riverview and Central corridors, in exchange for Ramsey County’s support for $100 million in funding for Minneapolis’ Hiawatha line.


The FTA summarized the case below …


Twin Cities – Transitway Corridors (Riverview Corridor)
St. Paul-Minneapolis, Minnesota

The Ramsey County Regional Railroad Authority (RCRRA) has selected a busway alternative as the Locally Preferred Alternative (LPA) for the Riverview Corridor Major Investment Study. The corridor extends from downtown St. Paul along the west bank of the Mississippi River, and connects the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, the Hiawatha Corridor light rail line (currently under construction) and the Mall of America retail complex in Bloomington, Minnesota. The RCRRA has allowed the Metropolitan Council to undertake a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) for the Riverview Corridor busway project. Although a DEIS was completed in 2001, a Final EIS has not been prepared. The Metropolitan Council (the local Metropolitan Planning Organization) adopted a local resolution that chose the busway alternative as the LPA for the Riverview Corridor. However, lack of state funding has rendered this project inactive. Through FY 2002, Congress has appropriated $4.61 million in Section 5309 New Starts funds for this effort.


In brief, it wasn’t even worth building a busway in the corridor 10 years ago, but now it is so valuable as a billion-dollar LRT possibility (10-15 years from now, maybe) that the ready-to-go arterial BRT B-Line in the corridor must be delayed indefinitely.


The Futurist Fallacy

As I occasionally write about the future in this blog, I try to keep in mind what I will call “The Futurist Fallacy” –   In the future, everyone will live and behave like  the futurist does today.

Contrast this with William Gibson’s quote: “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed”, which he is reported to have first said this in an interview on Fresh Air, NPR (31 August 1993).

Both of these may hold provided that the futurist is not in fact behaving the way future will turn out. Of course every good futurist will try to behave in a future-oriented way, trying to be cutting edge with technologies and lifestyles. Many of those will however turn out to be techno-evolutionary dead ends.



Street Network Structure and Activity Spaces

Activity Space
Activity Space

Recently Published:

This research analyses the influence of street network structure on household travel patterns, as measured by activity spaces. The analysis uses street network and travel survey data from the Minneapolis – St. Paul (Twin Cities) and Miami – Ft. Lauderdale (South Florida) metropolitan areas. Various measures of street network structure are used to quantify street network structure. The activity space polygon for each household in the travel survey data set is identified by combining the destinations reached by all household members on the given travel day including the household location. Statistical regression models are then estimated for each study area to test the relationship between street network structure and household activity space. The results show that network structure has a significant influence on household travel patterns, after controlling for other non-network variables such as accessibility to jobs and shops, and car ownership. JEL code: R41, R48, R53 Keywords: Transportation Geography, Network Structure, Circuity, Accessibility

Good Transit – Transit as a Good

Due to a peculiar aspect of American exceptionalism, unlike most countries, we persist in governing transit as if it were a public good. This misleading and inaccurate model prevents consideration of policies that will lead to better transit.

Public services are often provided by the public sector. However, not all public services are public goods – following the economic definition of public goods as neither excludable nor rivalrous, and thus capable of only being provided by a government or government-like entity. Many public services which are provided by the public sector in one place and time, are privately or cooperatively provided at other points in time (college is an example).

Every time someone arrives at a station or boards a bus, they must pay or can be prohibited from riding (or fined after the fact in the case of proof-of-payment systems). To be clear there are free transit systems, but that is by choice, they are excludable if not excluding. Many such as the Campus Connector on my own University of Minnesota campus don’t charge, but are also not particularly useful to non-members of the university community. These are functionally excludable, in that they are only of value to people in a particular geography.

Transit is in the short run sometimes rivalrous (when congested, if I have a spot on the train, you might not), sometimes not rivalrous (when uncongested, we can both sit on the bus – though stopping for me adds time for you), and in the long-run anti-rivalrous: the more people who use transit, the better transit gets. The Mohring Effect observes that each additional bus per hour lowers waiting times and schedule delays for travelers. Further note that creative scheduling (express plus local, e.g.) can lower travel times as well. We might extend that observation spatially as more direct routes are implemented with higher demand, reducing travel distances and thus times. Transit is a great mode in relatively dense areas where “everybody” uses it.

These characteristics define transit as more club-like than public. If we talk about transit accurately as a club-like good we can consider different types of institutional structures beyond the government department or agency, such as the utility model. Its institutional organization should reflect that.

My earlier post: Club Transit, discusses some of the ways we might reframe transit as a club good, with members rather than users.

It’s “only” 5 minutes, or Green Line Delay Monetized

Jim Walsh reports in the Strib

“According to timetables released before the line opened, a trip from Union Depot to Target Field was expected to take about 48-49 minutes. Metro Transit officials said last week that the westbound Green Line is averaging about 54 minutes, end to end and that the eastbound train is averaging about 53 minutes.”

If we take these numbers at face value, the train is 5 minutes late on average. (It is probably worse than this from a user perspective, because the times when it is late is when more riders are on the train to experience its lateness, when few riders are on-board in off-peak periods, it probably runs much closer to on-time).

He also reports 30,000 rides per day using the line. I don’t know the average length of trip, but let’s assume it is 1/2 the distance of the line. (This may be too long, but it off-sets the fact that more people experience the delay than the on-time conditions). Thus the average passenger trip would be delayed about 2.5 minutes.

There would be 75,000 person minutes of delay per day. There are 1440 minutes in a day, so about 1250 hours per day, or 52 person lives are lost to excess time on the train.

At a Value of Time of $15 (just as a point of information MnDOT now uses $16 for auto-value of travel time savings per person hour, but maybe transit users have a lower VOT because they don’t mind being delayed so much because they can do other things on the train) per hour, this is $18,750 per day or $6.8 Million per year.

Over 30 years, this is $205M without discounting. With discounting at 2% this is about $152M.

In short, this is not a small miss that we can just ignore (saying that it’s only 5 minutes and no one goes end to end anyway), and everything that can be done should be done to make the line go as fast as possible with a minimum of delay.

This does not even consider the lower operating costs to MetroTransit from less delay.

The Transportation Empowerment Act vs. Phasing in Devolution One EV at a Time

Reihan Salam at The Agenda discusses The Transportation Empowerment Act as a Model for Conservative Policymakers

In short the TEA would ” lower the federal gas tax while shifting virtually all responsibility for funding existing and new roads to state governments over five years”.

This is in contrast with current law, which would keep the federal gas tax the same (and thus decreasing in buying power), or proposals to raise the gas tax to maintain buying power in the face of declining fuel sales due both to fuel economy and declining vehicle travel. This problem will worsen with fleet electrification.

The vast majority of travel is within the same county, and thus certainly the same state (See The Hierarchy of Roads, the Locality of Traffic, and Governance for data from GPS from Minnesota), especially for big states in the western half of the US. Thus the problem is largely a state not national problem. Where there is a large share of interstate travel, states are fond of tolls (as in the northeast corridor) [See my dissertation: On Whom the Toll Falls for theory and Why States Toll for empirical evidence].

I am very empathetic with the idea of Subsidiarity, that we should deal with problems at the lowest reasonable scale of government.  This mismatch (or correspondence problem) of jurisdictional authority and the locale of the problem leads to many inefficiencies. Just as the federal government should not fix potholes on my local street, and my homeowners association should not have a nuclear policy, roads should be dealt with, and funded, closest to the user without incurring excess costs due to losing economies of scale. States should (and in many case did) raise their gas taxes, and further share that revenue with local levels of government (replacing local property taxes and other sources of general revenue), to fix today’s potholes and weak bridges. (Or perhaps there would only be one level of government operating and maintaining all levels of roads in states, which might be more efficient – it is what many other utilities do).

However, I am also empathetic with the idea that there is an existing source of revenue (the existing level of federal gas tax) on which there is consensus, which should not be thrown away so that 50 more difficult political fights can be had to achieve the same level of revenue. Most of the federal gas tax is returned to the states in proportion to the amount that was generated in those states, and while there are federal government rules and regulations and stipulations that add to the cost of doing business, most of those rules and regulations are well-intentioned.

The conclusion I have come to is we should keep the federal gas tax at the level it is at, dedicate it to specific national purposes (Maintaining and Rehabilitating the National Highway System – i.e. Fix-it-First) and allow it to fade away in importance over time. While of course it is technically possible to make this change in five years, I think it needlessly accelerates the process. (I am also aware of the Overton Window, and staking out a more extreme position helps move the dialog in that direction.)

There will be inevitable change in highway funding with electrification, and little would be lost waiting until EVs and HEVs are, say, 25% or 50% of the fleet, and the country is ready for some form of state-based mileage fee in lieu of gas taxes, administered with an emergent national standard so there don’t have to be 20 transponders in each car or 50 vignette stickers on your door.

In the end not all problems are federal problems and not all solutions are federal solutions. But there are real problems, and immediately lowering the federal gas tax exacerbates the short run problem in transportation. I am not convinced that this cold turkey strategy of phasing out gas taxes in 5 years (or at at least luke-warm turkey) outweighs the negative effects of federal funding, such as building a more capital intensive system than states themselves could justify if they bore all the costs, and raising costs all around.

See also: Fix It First  and Enterprising Roads

The Transportation Empowerment Act as a Model for Conservative Policymakers | The Agenda

Reihan Salam at The Agenda writes  The Transportation Empowerment Act as a Model for Conservative Policymakers. He quotes Enterprising Roads. He writes:

Meanwhile, other conservatives states might eventually establish public road enterprises, as the University of Minnesota transportation economist David Levinson has proposed:

The United States should follow Australia and New Zealand’s lead, and transform its state Departments of Transportation (or the highways divisions thereof) into separate, publicly regulated, self-financing corporate entities. Full-cost accounting—as already performed by Arizona’s Department of Transportation—constitutes a necessary first step in this direction. In making the transition, policymakers should strive to impose regulation only where absolutely necessary, to minimize the anti-competitive effects of any such regulation, and to leave social objectives to the government, thereby freeing road enterprises to focus on economic ones. Accordingly, road enterprises should be permitted to pursue cost-effective contracting and public private-partnerships as they see fit.

The new road enterprises should also be given latitude to make greater use of user fees—as opposed to general revenue—for funding their activities. Such charges are not just more efficient and equitable than traditional funding sources; if properly designed and implemented, they are also better suited to reducing congestion through effective pricing. Vehicle-miles-traveled charges, weight-distance charges and electronic tolling are all options that road enterprises should be free to pursue.

Over time, states will develop transportation strategies tailored to their particular circumstances. Densely-populated states like New York and New Jersey might choose to devote resources to creating Helsinki-style mobility networks while a state like Utah might instead choose to invest in a more expansive road network to support exurban development. States would no longer be hampered by the imperatives of national politics, and the most cost-effective, consumer-friendly state transportation bodies will find eager imitators across the country.