Monty Python and Delaware’s tax system – happy together

John Sweeney at The Delaware News Journal writes about my dissertation and Monty Python:

Let’s face it. Delaware bases its tax philosophy on Monty Python’s “Flying Circus.”

A man in a bowler hat once declaimed on the show: “To improve the British economy, I’d tax all foreigners living abroad.”

That’s us. We believe in making foreigners who live elsewhere pay our tax bill. Corporation franchise taxes, unclaimed property and resort property taxes. All paid by foreigners. Our trouble these days is we’re running out of foreigners.

By “foreigners,” I mean the people living in Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Washington, D.C., or anywhere else, just as long as they are willing to pay our fees, taxes and tolls so that we don’t have to.

The insight comes from David Levinson, a professor of transportation at the University of Minnesota and the author of the Transportationist blog. Professor Levinson wrote an intriguing journal article of that name in the late 1990s. In it, he laid out the thinking behind “Taxing Foreigners Living Abroad.”

Here’s the idea: Everybody hates taxes. Elected officials are loathe to impose them on voters because voters believe deep in their soul that all of the goodies the government provides (roads, clean water, police, even Social Security checks) should come to them for free. Ideally, some other guy will pay. The elected official’s dilemma is that the other guy votes too. The challenge is to find a way to get someone who can’t vote for them to pay the tax.

Of course, elected officials could cut down on the state’s spending, roll back outdated programs or pass along some health care expenses to employees. But hey, this is Delaware. Government is what we do here.

Therefore, elected officials have no choice but to tax foreigners living abroad.

Much to our dismay, however, the foreigners are wising up.

Professor Levinson, being a transportationist, uses tolls to explain the idea. States try their best to put tolls booths as far away as possible from the hometown population.

The best are border tolls. The state gets the money when the driver enters or leaves the state, not when he drives around in it, which is what local residents would do most of the time.

Delaware, of course, has the perfect example on Interstate 95. It’s right there on the Maryland border. Delawareans do pay the toll, of course, but not too often. However, foreigners driving through the highly profitable toll plaza support a sizable chunk of our road taxes. For say, the 20 or so minutes they spend inflicting their wear and tear on our highways, they have to pay four bucks. And when they go back the other way, they have to pay all over again.

Thank you, foreigners.

They don’t like it, naturally. But what they are going to do about it? Move here and vote against the governor?

It is probably no coincidence that I am originally from Maryland and my cousins live in Pennsylvania.

No Outlet: A Review of Twin Cities Premium Outlets

Last year, to much fanfareTwin Cities Premium Outlets were opened. While the center has recently encountered some controversy about the atrocious treatment of black shoppers, this post is about the design (recognizing its isolating design and nature as private property may have some relationship about how shop managers and police think about the presence of others).

Aerial of Twin Cities Premiums Outlets from Google Maps.
Aerial of Twin Cities Premiums Outlets from Google Maps.

Located in Eagan, on the Red Line (Cedar Grove Station), it is just a short transit hop from the Mall of America, and a shorter drive, at the intersection of Cedar Avenue (Highway 77) and Sibley Memorial Highway (Highway 13). With a “race track” design, the expectation is users will flow through the center in a circular pattern and return where they started, shopping both sides of the “street” simultaneously. As the first new mall in 13 years, it represents the last gasp of traditional bricks and mortar retail before the full onslaught of online shopping decimates what is left.

Twin Cities Premium Outlets:  Source:
Twin Cities Premium Outlets: Source:

Some photos are attached. I suppose the traffic is suppressed since this was a Sunday in February, though the stores were all open, and the temperature was above average. The Google maps shows a fairly full surface parking lot (though the top deck of the “garage” (you know, they meant “ramp”, even though the sign says “Garage” and the map says “Deck”) was largely empty. The site apparently has 3000 parking spaces (doesn’t look like it).

Slippery when wet. Imagine.
Slippery when wet. Imagine.
Twin Cities Premium Outlets, a plaza in the snow.
Twin Cities Premium Outlets, a plaza in the snow.
A color coded guide. It would be more effective if they named the streets.
A color coded guide. It would be more effective if they named the streets.
A street through the center enters a covered but not climate controlled section. Feel the wind.
A street through the center enters a covered but not climate controlled section. Feel the wind.
An open plaza faces the parking ramp.
An open plaza faces the parking ramp.
Cedar Grove Parking Garage is a few short steps (the Transit Center is farther away)
Cedar Grove Parking Garage is a few short steps (the Transit Center is farther away)
The food court has a wide variety of specialty vendors
The food court has a wide variety of specialty vendors

I do not understand the appeal of outdoor shopping in February in Minnesota. While there is a covered section, it is not enclosed, and thus remains cold. This design has many of the worst features of a shopping mall:

  • Parking (and transit)) far from the shops, the transit center is about 1000 feet (almost 1/4 mile) from the first store.
  • A finite space without any opportunity for discovery or serendipity, I really cannot accidentally leave the site. There are anchors at the end of the internal streets, foreclosing opportunities to extend the internal grid onto the surface parking. Is it really too much to consider the possibility you might want to expand this center without tearing down functional buildings and thus would have built an extensible grid.
  • Mostly ubiquitous chain stores (or the outlet versions thereof) with almost nothing local or unique.
  • Parking acting as a barrier to integration of the mall shops with the rest of the community. It could not have been difficult to have the parking garage back onto the highway so the stores could integrate with the neighborhood. Instead it is a fortress. I realize this might have cost some visibility from the highway from the shops themselves, but really, that’s what signs are for. Existing surface streets should have established the alignment of the pedestrian streets in the mall

without the best:

  • Climate control. This is not California, people. Has no one learned anything from the AMC Rosedale debacle.

It does of course prohibit cars on shopping streets, which is something we can only dream of in actual cities, and is an improvement over the fake Main Streets of places like the Shoppes Arbor Lakes in Maple Grove (which isn’t even Main Street).

There are plans to reconfigure the Cedar Grove Transit Station on the Red Line so that it will an on-line station, saving time for users (though potentially making it even farther from the Mall) [Forum Discussion]. It apparently serves 200 employees and shoppers at the center per day. Notably there has not been much crime at the center, with 630 calls for service since its opening (reported Jan 20), or about 3 calls per day .

Cross-posted at

Role Model

At we focus on Minneapolis and Minnesota. We praise what is praise-worthy and condemn what is condemnable. We feel we do it for our own community. And of course we do.

But what we do in Minneapolis is important not just for residents of Minneapolis, rather it matters for residents of the world. You my fellow Minneapolitans (and St. Paulites perhaps), and those in the surrounding environs are residents of communities that should aim to serve as a role model for the rest of the US, and the world, about how cities should function. We are perfecting the Twin Cities not simply for our own benefit, but for that of humanity.

If we fail, people will look to Portland, or Europe, instead. Surely we can do better.

Cross-posted at

Elements of Access: Resilience

800px-Resilience-figure001 800px-Resilience-figure002 800px-Resilience-figure003

Graph theory defines resilience such that: if graph G has property P, what is the minimum number of edges (E) (links) that need to be removed so that G no longer has P? For example, consider the graph in the Figure on the Left above and its resilience with respect to connectivity. Removing any one edge leaves a connected graph. It is necessary to remove two edges to produce a graph that is not connected (Middle Figure). Thus, we could say that this graph has a resilience of 2 with respect to connectivity. Note that this does not mean that removing any two edges will destroy connectivity in this graph. The Figure on the Right demonstrates the possibility of removing two edges while leaving the graph connected.

Under this definition, a given graph will have different values of resilience with respect to different properties. As a result the definition is concrete but flexible, and can be usefully applied to real-world networks where properties are of variable importance from different perspectives.

The example above highlights the difference between random edge removal and targeted edge removal. If edges are removed randomly, a property might survive the removal of many edges. Targeted edge removal implies that the graph is analyzed and edges are chosen to maximize effect. The effect on the network of either type of edge removal depends in part on degree distribution.

Graphs following a power-law distribution (scale-free) tend to be highly resilient to random edge removal because there is a very good chance that the edges removed will connect only low-degree vertices – and therefore the overall graph structure will be affected only slightly. Graphs are much more vulnerable, however, to targeted removal of edges attached to high-degree nodes, especially to the removal of those nodes themselves. In scale-free graphs, these high-degree vertices are critical in connecting subgraphs.

A graph with a low resilience with respect to a property can lose that property as a result of only a few edge removals. We can say that the graph is vulnerable with respect to that property.

But this is only half of a complete consideration of vulnerability. The other half has to do with the effect on the network’s performance if the property in question has been lost.

In graph theory, resilience is a binary concept: an edge either exists or it does not; a graph either has a property or it does not. In real-world transportation networks, links have additional properties such as capacity, utilization, demand, and cost.


  •  This post is adapted from the Wikibook Transportation Geography and Network Science  originally written by the research team.
  •  Sudakov, B. and V. H. Vu (2008). Local resilience of graphs. Random Structures & Algo- rithms 33(4), 409–433.
  •  Newman, M. E. (2003). The structure and function of complex networks. SIAM review 45 (2), 167–256.

Shaping a new funding model for public transit in Quebec

Jason Magder writes in the Montreal Gazette: Shaping a new funding model for public transit in Quebec

David Levinson, who teaches in the department of civil, environmental, and geo-engineering at the University of Minnesota, said there are several ways to capture the value of transit developments without taxing citizens heavily.

One idea is to reverse the way property is taxed so that the land portion is taxed more heavily than the development portion.

“You should tax the land more. That way, you encourage development as a way to pay for transit, instead of having all these lots of land lying fallow,” he said.

Another method of capturing the value of real estate is for the transit agencies themselves to purchase land around future stations and then develop them, or sell them off.

Any future agreement with the Caisse to build the two train projects will probably end up with the Caisse owning the train stations so that the pension fund can develop commercial or residential properties.

Levinson noted that the city of Vancouver is particularly good at this type of land capture. Land development has helped pay for a portion of the new Canada Line — part of the SkyTrain network that links the suburb of Richmond to the airport and the city’s downtown centre. The transit agency in Vancouver, Translink, is in the process of buying up land around a proposed subway, at least 10 years before the project’s construction is slated to start.

Vancouver is looking to find new sources of revenue to fund a $7.5-billion 10-year wish list, which includes a four-stop subway, and extensions of the SkyTrain network. The city has proposed to increase the provincial sales tax in the metro Vancouver region from 7 to 7.5 per cent to pay for the project, and a write-in plebiscite on the proposal will take place in the spring.

In part 2 Questions surround who should make decisions about future transit projects, he writes:

David Levinson, who teaches in the department of civil, environmental, and geo-engineering at the University of Minnesota, said the London model is worth exploring.

He said it forces transit agencies to think more like companies, and make decisions on projects based on where the service is most needed, in a way that will provide the best value for investment.

“The only way that public transit is sustainable is if it’s serving customers,” he said.

He said the London model still relies on the government to subsidize less busy routes. Private bus companies also compete to run routes that are not profitable.

Levinson said rather than pouring more money into transit, government policies should make it more expensive to use a car to travel, by charging what’s called a congestion tax to drive into the city.

He said governments must make it more expensive to drive, and that will automatically give a major boost to public transit.


What if car driving is like playing chess


JS Writes in with an intriguing idea:

“What if car driving is like playing chess?  Self-driving cars may be possible and even valuable but the safest most efficient driving may be the combination of the computer and the person/people.  What if one Uber “driver” could drive 10 cars at once, or a team of 3 Uber drivers could drive 100 cars?”

And then sends in the following from the EconTalk podcast …
From Econtalk: Tyler Cowen on Inequality, the Future, and Average is Over 11:01


Russ: So let’s talk about what you’ve learned as a chess fan. And you write at some length. At first I was rather taken aback by this, but I grew to find it quite fascinating. You write at some length about the role of machines in chess tournaments, and particularly in freestyle. Talk about that and why it’s a nice potential template for future human interaction.

Guest: Freestyle is a form of chess where a human teams up with a computer. So, if you play human-and-computer against computer, for the most part human-and-computer, if it’s a practiced human, will beat the computer. Even though computers per se are much stronger than humans at chess, it’s the team that’s stronger than either one. And I think this is a good metaphor for a lot of what our job market future will look like. So there’s a big chunk of the book that looks rather closely at freestyle chess and tries to see what we can learn from it.

Russ: The thing I found most provocative about that is that the best freestyle teams do not necessarily have the best human players. In fact that could be something of a handicap.

Guest: That’s right. The really good human players are too tempted to override the computer and substitute in their own judgment. The best freestyle teams, they are quite epistemically modest, the human or humans involved. And what they are really good at is asking questions. So they’ll run two or three different computer programs and then just check on where do those programs disagree. And then they’ll probe more on those points. And that’s what the humans do well that the computers, at least not yet, aren’t able to copy. So it’s knowing what questions to ask that has become the important human skill in this freestyle endeavor.

I still think we will need to turn it all over to the computers, and the sooner the better. Human intervention will need to be so real-time that it is likely to be worse than the algorithm, and the lags in communication are sufficient to be debilitating. But the history of self-driving cars has yet to be written.

Governing transit: the regulated public utility | CityBlock

Alex Block over at the City Block blog writes about Governing transit: the regulated public utility.

The MBTA is struggling, but they’re not the only transit authority facing both near and long-term challenges. The MTA in New York is trying to find the funds for its capital plan; WMATA is facing systemic budget deficits while trying to restorerider confidence in the system.

For-profit corporations such as airlines aren’t the right answer to govern transit in an American context. So, what kind of structure could work?

Writing at Citylab, David Levinson made the case for structuring American transit operations as regulated public utilities, able to pull the best elements of private sector management and pair them with the fundamentally public purpose required for urban mass transit.

David cites seven key elements of this model:

  1. Competitive tendering for services
  2. The ability to raise fares (with regulatory approval)
  3. Using a smartcard as a common platform for fare payment
  4. Specific contracts with local governments to operate subsidized service
  5. Ability to recapture land value through land ownership and real estate development
  6. Access to private capital markets
  7. Local governance, funding, and decision-making

These elements aren’t substantively different from the elements of German public transport governance reforms outlined by Ralph Buehler and John Pucher: competitive tendering for many services, increased fares, investments in technology to improve capacity, efficiency, and revenue. Public regulation oversees these efforts to operate the core business more efficiently.


William Louis Garrison (1924-2015)

Saddened to learn of the passing of my co-author and teacher, Bill Garrison.

Article from UC Berkeley Civil and Environmental Engineering News

William Louis Garrison, UC Berkeley professor emeritus in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and former director of Berkeley’s Institute of Transportation Studies, died on Feb. 1, 2015 in Lafayette, CA. He was 90.

Garrison joined the CEE faculty as a Professor in 1973. That same year he was appointed director of the Institute of Transportation and Traffic Engineering (ITTE) (the predecessor of the Insitute of Transportation Studies), a position he held for 7 years. He retired from Berkeley in 1991.

Although his work at Berkeley was focused on how innovation and technological change occurs in the field of transportation, he was well known earlier in his career for leading the so-called “quantitative revolution” in geography.

“Bill moved from geography to transportation in the 1970s. He was particularly interested in innovation and how technological change occurs,” said David Levinson, a former student of Garrison’s who now serves on the faculty of the Department of Civil, Environmental and Geo-Engineering at the University of Minnesota.

“He strongly believed that we should be seeking new development pathways, rather than remaining stuck perfecting existing systems—what he called the ‘polished present’.”

Another former student, Barry Wellar commented in 2007 at the 2007 Anderson Distinguished Lecture in Applied Geography that Garrison “had a way of looking at things that were way outside the box years before that notion was popularized, and even his so-called ‘easy reads’ contained nuances about relationships and processes that would be missed by the casual reader.”

Garrison was born in 1924 and raised in Tennessee. Following his service in World War II during which he did meteorological work for the US Army, he received his PhD in Geography from Northwestern University in 1950.

A few years later, as a young faculty member at the University of Washington, he led the way to revitalizing the field of geography through the use of greater scientific thinking and methods. That led to an increased use of computerized statistical techniques such as multivariate analysis in geographical research. Garrison and his students used such historic computing systems as the IBM 604 and IBM 650. Many of those students would later go on to revolutionize geographic science and geographic information systems.

In recent years, the biennial William L. Garrison Award for Best Dissertation in Computational Geography was created to recognize Garrison’s outstanding research and educational contributions. The award is intended to arouse a more general and deeper understanding of the important role that advanced computation can play in resolving the complex problems of space–time analysis that are at the core of geographic science.

In addition to the University of Washington, Garrison taught at Northwestern University, University of Pennsylvania, University of Illinois, University of Pittsburgh, before he arrived at UC Berkeley in 1973 as Professor in the Civil Engineering Department, and ITTE Director.

By then his interests had shifted to transportation. He made invaluable contributions to the Transportation Engineering Program in the department, expanding and strengthening the planning and policy elements of the curriculum. Likewise, when he took at the helm at ITTE he set out to expand and broaden the scope beyond transportation and traffic engineering.

“Bill steered the insitute into a broad based center for the study of transportation. He expanded its agenda and broadened the community of faculty affiliates to encompass many departments on the campus including City and Regional Planning, Economics, Geography, Public Policy and Sociology,” said Adib Kanafani, CEE Professor of the Graduate School. Kanafani succeeded Garrison as ITS Director in 1983.

“Bill’s leadership was reflected in the institute’s name change as ITTE became the “Institute of Transportation Studies.”

Garrison served on numerous national committees, and served as Chair of the Executive Committee  of the Transportation Research Board in 1973. In the late 1980s he spent time in Austria examining growth trajectories of various transportation technologies. Much of that work is what forms the nucleus of The Transportation Experience first published by Oxford University Press in 2006, then revised and published in a second edition in 2014. His co-author was David Levinson.

“He was one of the few people to take a macro-view of transportation and who tried to understand the long-term dynamics of systems,” said Levinson.

In 2007, Garrison gave the Anderson Distinguished lecture in Applied Geography at the Association of American Geographers in Washington, DC.

In his address, he said:

“About fifty years ago I began to teach a course on transportation geography, and at about that same time I began working with others on highway improvement and financing in Washington State and nationwide telephone communications as a civil defense matter. In subsequent decades I have worked to understand transportation systems of many types as well as engineered systems such as sanitary systems. This work raised many questions of a ‘why do systems and actors do what they do’ sort. To comment on those questions I will refer to constraints formed by networks and institutional structures.”

Systems are birthed when actors combine old or new building blocks and produce services aligned with markets. Early on, there is flexibility as the marriage of systems and markets is forged.

The early decades of the railroads provide a sweeping example. Created by mixing and matching building blocks from tramways, steam engines, canal and toll road construction techniques and pricing protocols and management and financing techniques from military, church and industry they molded themselves like clay. Discovery was a key theme—discovering a workable mix of hard and soft technologies and, equally important, discovering markets. Discovery extended to finding improvements in technologies to respond to social innovations, such as those asking for expanded passenger transportation. Railroads adjusted themselves to circumstances of market density, raw materials for fuel and construction, and styles of national governance. They were flexible.

The flexible period ran from about 1830 to 1860. Afterwards, deployment and growth ruled, and network and organizational inflexibilities began to exert themselves, along with those imposed by those striving to control development using standards, regulations, and other tools. Flexibility became more and more restrained…

I recognize that our legacy infrastructure systems have enormous value. They serve as inputs for all that we do, and shape social and economic structures. They form a record of learning and social and economic actions and achievements. But at the same time, their inflexibilities are costly now and place serious limits on options for the future.”

William Louis Garrison is survived by his wife Marcia Garrison and their four children, Deborah Churich, James Garrison, Jane Garrison Grimaldi, and John Garrison; his three children, Sara Garrison, Ann Darrin, and Helen Saxenian from his first wife Mary Margaret Garrison (who predeceased him); 16 grandchildren, and one great grandchild.

Memorial services will be private at the request of the family.

Our hatred of taxes, demands for services conflict | Wilmington News Journal

Wilmington News Journal writes an Opinion: Our hatred of taxes, demands for services conflict.

As Delaware Transportation Secretary Jennifer Cohan notes, no community leader will deny the state has a funding problem for its roadways. However, as those same community leaders will acknowledge, there is practically no way we are going to solve that problem. Americans in general, and Delawareans in particular, do not like paying taxes. They never did. In recent years the hostility to taxes are grown. The anti-tax movement remains strong and any proposed tax on gasoline makes it even stronger.

The result is, as Secretary Cohan told legislative budget writers last week, $600 million worth of highway projects will be on hold for years. That sounds reasonable, until the missing roadwork affects them. Then it gets personal. The demand for services will go up. However, there still will not be tax increases.

David Levinson, a professor of transportation studies at the University of Minnesota, explains it this way: “Roads are governed by elected officials, who believe they are re-elected when they keep taxes down and are sometimes punished when they raise taxes.” Voters do not trust transportation departments, Professor Levinson says, and they are not always wrong.

Congress is in the same shape as the Delaware General Assembly. It is supposed to fix the federal highway trust fund. However, it seems highly reluctant to do so if it adds anything to the taxpayers’ gasoline bill. Economists believe a way can be found so that the private cost of driving a car comes close to the actual public cost. Despite what we pay at the pump or for tolls or fees, the cost of using the roads and polluting the air is much higher. Economists, both right and left, argue this should be evened out.

Economists, however, do not run for re-election.

The largest source of revenue for the road projects are the tolls on I-95 and Del. 1. This makes sense and follows the same no-tax logic of gasoline levies. The Del. 1 toll is higher on the weekend. The drivers paying that extra money are usually driving for pleasure, not work. The extra cash goes down more easily.

The I-95 tolls is better yet from this point of view. It is a border tax, if you will. The bulk of it is paid by people driving through Delaware. They are highly unlikely to protest a high toll by voting against Delaware incumbents. Our trouble is that we do not have more borders that strangers want to cross.

Every driver has welcomed the current lower price of gasoline. Tax increase suggestions from infrastructure advocates have been shouted down, both by the diehard anti-tax groups and the average motorist who is enjoying the relief. Therefore, the impasse continues. Cars will become even more efficient on gasoline and thus lower the amount of tax coming in. Postponed maintenance will grow more costly and wear and tear on the roads will get worse.

Somewhere along the line, something will have to give. Even re-election wary politicians will be forced to agree.

Delaware of course has some of the highest share of revenue from tolls in the US due to its strategic position of owning a short turnpike between Maryland, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey, of being able to tax foreigners living abroad. Yet even they face the same issue as other states as to how to raise revenue.