U of M Accessibility Observatory announces partnership with TomTom to create national dataset of access to jobs 

A University of Minnesota Press Release about the Accessibility Observatory:

The University of Minnesota Accessibility Observatory is partnering with TomTom to create a national dataset that studies and illustrates accessibility to jobs by automobiles and mass transit throughout the country.

“Accessibility metrics indicate how well a transportation system fulfills the goal of connecting users to valuable destinations,” says Observatory director Andrew Owen.

TomTom, a global leader in navigation and mapping products, will provide map and historical speed data to help analyze accessibility to jobs by auto for metropolitan areas across the United States. For transit data, the Observatory is relying on open, public sources using a method developed at the University with support from the Center for Transportation Studies.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation is the lead agency and coordinator for the national pooled-fund study. Other participating agencies are the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and the DOTs of California, Florida, Iowa, North Carolina, Virginia, and Wisconsin.

The annually updated dataset will give study partners digital access to detailed reports of local accessibility trends and patterns. Each partner can use the dataset for local transportation system evaluation, performance management, planning, and research efforts.

“Today’s transportation user wants more than mobility—they want accessibility and they want MnDOT to invest in the appropriate solution, at the right place, at the right time, and at the appropriate cost,” says Tim Henkel, division director of modal planning and program management at MnDOT. “The Accessibility Observatory offers solutions to these decision-making challenges.”

The Transportation Pooled Fund Program, part of the National Cooperative Highway Research Program, allows state DOTs, FHWA program offices, and other organizations to combine resources and achieve common research goals. Additional partners are welcome to join the study.

For information about the Accessibility Observatory, see access.umn.edu.

The race is on to figure out what self-driving cars should look like | WaPo

Matt McFarland writes in the Washington Post  “The race is on to figure out what self-driving cars should look like

David Levinson, a civil engineering professor at the University of Minnesota, argued in a recent paper that we’ll see a Cambrian explosion of new vehicle forms that are designed for specific tasks.

“The fleet will have greater variety, with the right size vehicle assigned to a particular job. Today there is a car-size arms race: people buy larger cars, which are perceived to be safer for the occupant, and taller cars, which allow the driver to see in front of the car immediately in front of them,” Levinson said. “Both of these advantages are largely obviated with autonomous vehicles. The car-size arms race ends.”

Main Street – New Ulm, Minnesota | streets.mn

New Ulm, Minnesota, (map) in Brown County, is the local urbanist small town Utopia. New Ulm is definitely in good shape as small towns go. Having a college (Martin Luther) in town is good, but its location away from Main Street means it doesn’t interact as much as Carleton in Northfield. It parallels the Minnesota River, and aligns its grid with that mighty stream. The main part of town (Main Street here is called Broadway) is separated from the River by railroad tracks. Its most important feature is a giant statue of Hermann the German, commemorating Armenius’ victory over the Romans at Teutoburg Wald, which helped liberate New Ulm, which reflects the strong German culture of the area, as illustrated by the local Schell Brewery.

Broadway is a county, but not state level road, so it doesn’t have the traffic issues facing St. Peter, where a heavily trafficked US highway comprises Main Street.

The buildings along Broadway are almost fully rented. Yet parking is available. The town itself has an interesting idealistic planning history. Wikipedia writes:

The city was founded in 1854[9] by the German Land Company of Chicago. The city was named after the city of Neu-Ulm in the state of Bavaria in southern Germany.[10] Ulm and Neu-Ulm are sister cities, with Ulm being situated on the Baden-Württemberg side and Neu-Ulm on the Bavarian side of the Danube river. In part due to the city’s German heritage, it is a center for brewing in the Upper Midwest, home to the August Schell Brewing Company.

In 1856, the Settlement Association of the Socialist Turner Society (“Turners”) helped to secure the city’s future. The Turners originated in Germany in the first half of the nineteenth century, promoted with the slogan, “Sound Mind, Sound Body.” Their clubs combined gymnastics with lectures and debates about the issues of the day. Following the Revolutions of 1848, substantial numbers of Germans emigrated to the United States. In their new land, Turners formed associations (Vereins) throughout the eastern, midwestern, and western states, making it the largest secular German American organization in the country in the nineteenth century. Following a series of attacks by nativist mobs in major cities such as Chicago, Cincinnati, and Louisville, a national convention of Turners authorized the formation of a colony on the frontier. Intending to begin a community that expressed Turner ideals, the Settlement Association joined the Chicago Germans who had struggled here due to a lack of capital. The Turners supplied that, as well as hundreds of colonizers from the east who arrived in 1856.[11]

As a representation of Turner ideals, the city plan reflected those values. The German Land Company hired Christian Prignitz to complete a new plan for New Ulm, filed in April 1858. This master plan for New Ulm expressed a grand vision of the city’s future. At the heart of the community stood blocks reserved for Turner Hall, the county courthouse, and a public school, representing the political, social, and educational center of the community. The westernmost avenues were named after American heroes George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Thomas Paine—the latter three noted for their freethinking philosophies. Members obtained the means to support themselves — in harmony with nature — through the distribution of four-acre garden lots located outside of the residential area. Historian Dennis Gimmestad wrote, “The founders’ goals created a community persona that sets New Ulm apart from the Minnesota towns founded by land speculators or railroad companies. . . . The New Ulm founders aspired to establish a town with a defined philosophical, economic, and social character.”[12]

The socialism has faded, but the logic of the well thought out grid remain.

Buesch Building 1890
Buesch Building 1890
Marktplatz Mall gateway, the mall is now out of receivership.
Marktplatz Mall gateway, the mall is now out of receivership.
A decorative navigational tree
A decorative navigational tree
Masonic Block Building. The quality of Masonry has declined in the past century.
Masonic Block Building. The quality of Masonry has declined in the past century.
The local jeweler sponsors an oversized timepiece.
The local jeweler sponsors an oversized timepiece.
Four cars can park in parallel on Center Street
Four cars can park in parallel on Center Street
Buenger Store 1892, 1902
Buenger Store 1892, 1902
Teutonic Architecture
Teutonic Architecture
New Ulm - 1870s: View of Minnesota Street circa 1871, looking north from Center Street
New Ulm – 1870s: View of Minnesota Street circa 1871, looking north from Center Street
The town is in the shadow of Hermann the German.
The town is in the shadow of Hermann the German.
New Ulm on fire in the Dakota Wars
New Ulm on fire in the Dakota War of 1862
Herberger's Department Store in New Ulm. Department stores are not only for shopping malls.
Herberger’s Department Store in New Ulm. Department stores are not only for shopping malls.

Left-Right convergence on Highways.

Reihan Salam at National Review on Hillary Clinton’s Infrastructure Speech

 Different infrastructure services require different kinds of expertise, in large part because they depend on different business models, some of which are more conducive to public investment than others. I’m a heretic on the subject of our highway system. I don’t think our main problem is that we’re not spending enough on highways, as Clinton seems to believe. If anything, I think our highway system is overbuilt [emphasis added]. ​Beyond handing over responsibility over highways to states, which should in turn hand over responsibility to independent road enterprises that operate on sane, commercial lines, I’d say the federal government would do us all a favor by getting out of the way.

What we do is more important than how much we spend. And I of course agree that we are mostly overbuilt, which the environmental community has been saying for years, as have local community groups opposing specific projects, and Strong Towns more recently. The problem is we don’t know how much because we underprice both infrastructure and the externalities of transportation. The daily shortages of roadspace we call congestion arise because people perceive travel as costing less to themselves than its real social cost. No one pays for  the delay they cause others, we all pay for the delay others cause us. Moving beyond this Soviet style resource allocation is the most important thing we can do now to address congestion, far more than the few widening projects we could actually afford.

Once we have pricing with the right governance structure, we will see far less congestion and traffic along with higher quality roads that are properly funded and maintained. Nothing is a sliver bullet, but this is as close as you can get in the road sector.

Beijing: CICTP 2015

I have been invited to present at  15th COTA International Conference of Transportation Professionals (CICTP 2015) in Beijing, China.

Plenary Session I: Sustainable Multimodal Transportation (Saturday July 25)

Chair: Dr. Yu Zhang, Conference Organizing Committee Chair, Associate Professor, University of South Florida, USA

14:00 – 16:10 Conference Room 1 Building 7 瑞宾楼 Beijing Friendship Hotel

14:00 – 14:20 The Transportation Experience: From Steamboats to Streetcars Dr. David Levinson, Professor, University of Minnesota, USA

This will be second trip to Beijing, so I can see how things have changed in 13 years. I am looking forward to it.

Climbing Mount Next: The Effects of Autonomous Vehicles on Society

Recently published
Climbing Mount Next: The Effects of Autonomous Vehicles on Society

Levinson, David (Minnesota Journal of Law, Science & Technology, 2015)

Climbing Mount Next: The Effects of Autonomous Vehicles on Society

Issue Date


Minnesota Journal of Law, Science & Technology


The United States spent almost the entire twentieth century climbing Mount Auto. From the 1920s onward, the automobile was the dominant mode of travel for Americans, accumulating more miles per capita than other modes. While the Great Depression slowed the auto’s growth, it did not result in decline. There was a brief downturn during World War II, and a few hiccups in the steady rise of mileage. But the later 2000s and 2010s have seen a sharp downturn in motor vehicle use per capita. This drop is greater than the drop during World War II in absolute terms (though the War saw a drop of twenty-three percent off the pre-war peak, and the 2012 drop is seven percent below 2005). It is complemented by an apparent plateauing in total miles of paved roads since 2008. Within the transportation sector there have been small shifts over the past fifteen years, which cannot explain much of the decline of travel. There are active transportation modes, like walking and biking, which work well for short trips, and certainly have niches they can grow into if land development intensifies and people reorganize their lives to enable them. For instance, I am one of the seven percent of Minneapolitans who walk to work. The numbers are much lower outside core cities, and nationally, at three percent. Transit ridership per capita is up ever so slightly. There are a slew of “new mobility options” which use information technologies to allow travel without owning an automobile, but are not yet visible in the transportation statistics. These include peer-to-peer taxi and ridesharing services and dynamic real-time rental cars. While these are useful in their niches, they likely are not cost-effective enough to be the main transportation mode for the vast majority of the population with the given technology. Today these new mobility options are supplements when the main mode does not solve the job to be done. In the future, that might change. Technologies allow people to do more of the same, and they allow people to do new things. It is easier to predict more of the same than new things.
Appears in Collection(s)

Suggested Citation

Levinson, David. (2015). Climbing Mount Next: The Effects of Autonomous Vehicles on Society. Minnesota Journal of Law, Science & Technology. Retrieved from the University of Minnesota Digital Conservancy, http://hdl.handle.net/11299/172960.

Uber in Montreal

One of our Montreal correspondents writes:

Just tried [Uber] today for a small round trip … going in went fine, coming back I was stopped by the Montreal Taxi Police. They were online monitoring cars moving on the Uber page and when we moved to a certain corner they stopped us.

They took my info and gave me the steps to get the money back. The Police Officer was guiding me on the app actually. Told me the driver will stay with them for a while and asked me to leave and find a different service or use Uber taxi which they showed me on the app. Got my money back in less than an hour though.

The driver received a big fine which uber will pick as I understand. So these guys operate illegally in areas till this area changes its laws and the pick heavy fines for the sake of market penetration. A very weird model but interesting.

Thoughts on Transit and Urban Form

Hypothesis: Regular frequent transit service remains feasible even in single family homes in neighborhoods with a modicum of density.

The Land Use

Consider the 1 mile grid landscape that is common in the post-Revolutionary United States due to the Northwest Ordinance and the ease of development. The is roughly the streetcar era land use design.

While there are a variety of ways this grid can be carved up, one common way is to have

  • 10 cross-streets per mile of grid long direction (520′ )
  • 20 cross-streets per mile of grid in short direction (260′ )

This arrangement produces 200 blocks per square mile. The size of each block is:

  • 520′ x 260′ block (center line – center line)
  • 480′ x 240′ block (edge to edge), allowing space for roads.

If houses have a 40’ frontage with 110′ depth ( allowing 20′ for alley?) = 4,400 sq. ft. (~1/10 acre)

Note there are  640 acres per square mile and 43,560 square feet acre per acre.

This spacing gives 12 houses per block face long direction, or 24 houses per block. In this configuration, no houses face the short direction. Obviously this can be adjusted.

If there were only housing, this would give 4,800 houses per square mile

At 2 persons per household (which is definitely on the low side for single family homes, this gives us 9,600 PPSM in single family homes at typical built density. At 5 persons per household, this leads to 24,000 PPSM.

At 5 persons per household, we could increase lot size to 1/4 acre (neglecting roads) and still can get 2,560 houses per square mile  or 12,800 PPSM.

While some space is devoted to schools, parks, retail, commercial, and industrial activity, among other uses, I hope this is persuasive that 10,000 PPSM is feasible over large areas without being Manhattan-like high density. The City of Minneapolis for instance according to the 2010 Census has a density of 7,417 PPSM. At its peak population, it had over 10,000 PPSM.

The Transit

The target density for successful transit is often given as 10,000 persons per square mile (PPSM), as per Zupan and Pushkarev (also discussed here).

If we assume that every person originates lots of short trips (which can be dealt with by walking or biking) and one long trip per day (say going to work), the 10,000 PPSM would generate 10,000 transit trips per square mile. So we have 10,000 Boardings. This is roughly streetcar era demand in cities.

If we space transit routes on the 1/2 mile routes (as was typical of streetcars) both east-west and north-south, with stops where transit routes crossed and half-way between (i.e. 1/4 mile spacing between stops), the area is served by 21 stops. The four stops at the outer corners are shared with 4 other areas, and the 8 non-corner stops at the perimeter are shared with 2 other areas, while 5 stops are internal to the 1 mile square, gives us 12 equivalent dedicated stops for the area.

With 10,000 PPSM and 12 stops, each stop serves 833 people per day. If transit vehicles carry 50 people each, that is 17 full transit vehicles per day. Of course transit vehicles do not generally fill up at one transit stop, and over a 17 hour day, this would be 1 transit vehicle every hour. If instead we wanted service at 10 minute headways, but full vehicles, we would expect each vehicle to fill up 1/6 of its load at each stop (or about 8 passengers per stop). That would be a much higher load factor than generally observed.

The maximum walking distance to a transit stop would be (by Pythagoras SQRT of 0.25^2 + 0.25^2 =) 0.35 miles.

The Car

So what guarantees people will make 1 transit trip per day? If there is no good alternative, this is an easy choice. Today, this depends. The argument for using transit is that in our idealized grid-like city with a grid-like transit system, the transit system is as direct as every other mode, so there is no lost distance due to circuity. The only lost time is the schedule delay (which is a maximum on average of 5 minutes, less if people can time their wait to match the transit vehicle), and the time when the vehicle is stopped (and accelerating and decelerating) boarding and alighting passengers, which we know can be faster if people pre-pay, and the transfer time between vehicles (with a maximum of one transfer in the idealized grid, again with a maximum on average of 5 minutes, less if the routes are timed well). Finally with any transit advantages (e.g. signal timing priority, exclusive lane or stopping in lane, as opposed to weaving into stops) transit can recover some of the time lost vis-a-vis the automobile.


Where transit is better (faster, cheaper) than alternatives, and frequent enough, people will use it in large numbers. This is observed daily in large cities. Thus it must be feasible to obtain such faster, cheaper, frequent enough service levels. In most places in the US, the transit service and ridership is not there. Let’s work through an example.

For a five mile trip, there will be about 20 stops at 1/4 mile stop spacing. If each stop results in 30 seconds lost time (2-3 seconds per boarding plus acceleration/deceleration), that is 10 minutes of time lost there.  This will generally be slower than an automobile, even with  stop signs or red lights every 1/4 mile, as the time spent stop at the stop will be less than for transit, even with pre-payment. (Unless the auto is stuck behind a transit vehicle and cannot pass).

Initial schedule delay is 5 minutes assuming random arrivals.

Walk access time of (let’s say 1/2 of 0.35 miles or 0.18 miles at 3 miles per hour) is about 4 minutes. This is obviously farther than from the front door to a parked car at the home end. Destination walk egress time is probably similar  for most people. For transit to downtown, lower for transit (and higher for the parked car).

Transfer time is also non-trivial, and can be as high as another 5 minutes if it is effectively uncoordinated.

So now even with our idealized transit system we have lost something like 10+5+4+5+4 minutes or 28 minutes compared with the car for a 5 mile trip. At a value of time of $15/hour ($0.25/minute) this is the equivalent of $7. If the transit fare is $2, and the cost of gas (at $5/gallon and 25 miles per gallon) is $1 (not even considering carpooling), net additional out-of-pocket cost for transit is now the equivalent of $8. Of course, vehicle ownership ($10-$20/day) can be avoided, as can parking charges. We are not considering externalities, and other costs of vehicles that are not internalized.

The Express

We can make transit faster with express routes on limited access rights-of-way. If demand is high enough, we can make transit go faster, or have an even higher frequency, and stop less often. One disadvantage of express routes is a longer access/egress time (they can’t be spaced as close together if they are to achieve economies of scale, so they are on the mile instead of 1/2 mile spacing at best (as per London)). If that access and/or egress is by transit itself, that imposes additional scheduling time penalties. We can compensate because now our land use changes to take advantage of the express services. At express stations, densities rise. Apartments replace single-family homes. We can also give transit a higher frequency. Express buses and commuter trains often have low frequencies, while modern or modernized subways may have one train every 2 minutes or better. So if we increase the highest distance to a station for 1 mile spacing between stations and 1 mile between routes (so every station is a transfer), the walk access time is 1/2 of the maximum time of SQRT (0.5^2+0.5^2) = 0.71 or 0.35 miles. At 3 mph this is a walk time of  7.1 minutes on each end.

For a 5 mile trip with transfer Our lost time is 2.5 (30 seconds [per stop * 5 stops]) + 1 (schedule delay) + 7 (access) + 1 (transfer delay) + 7 (egress time) = 18.5 minutes. This is less than the local transit service above, and can be reduced for people who live closer to the station rather than spread out uniformly across the landscape. If we have higher travel speeds than auto (let’s say averaging 45 mph while in motion on exclusive right-of-way instead of 30 on surface streets), for a 5 mile trip the express transit time is 6.67 minutes instead of 10 minutes. But this 3.33 minute savings does not outweigh the lost delays due to access and waiting costs. This does not even begin to consider the additional costs of operating express vs. local services, or revenues from the service.

To reduce transportation costs with transit-like services, we can arrange cities linearly, thereby eliminating transfers and reducing access costs. This wastes accessibility for non-transit modes. So optimal urban form depends on the technology you are optimizing for. In a city where driving is perceived to cost $1/trip, and it saves between 18 and 28 minutes per trip, it is no wonder the automobile is the dominant mode for long distance trips even in historically transit advantageous places. Changing that requires changing the perceived (and real) cost of driving for drivers, as there is little that can be done on the transit supply side which will make a significant difference in the absence of that for most markets.

In dense areas, the market takes care of that, with expensive parking. In low density areas, there is enough room for everyone’s car without charging.


I believe systematically re-arranging existing cities for transit (or any mode) is putting the cart before the horse. Transportation should serve activities, and while transportation and land use co-evolve, that co-evolution is slow (over decades) and should be adaptable to alternatives.


Using Multiday GPS Data – Webinar

I am participating in an FHWA Webinar tomorrow (July 16) (1pm Central). Mine is An Empirical Study of the Deviation between Actual and Shortest Travel (which will be 2nd up). Details below

Using Multiday GPS Data


Date: July 16, 2015

Location: 2-4 PM Eastern

Web Address: http://fhwa.adobeconnect.com/tmipvirtualseminars/

Description: This webinar will include four presentations:

  • An Empirical Study of the Deviation between Actual and Shortest Travel Time Paths;
  • Multi-day Variation in Time Use and Destination Choice in the Bay Area Using the California Household Travel Survey;
  • Using Vehicle GPS Data to Understand Travel Time Reliability; and
  • Capturing Personal Modality Styles Using Multiday GPS Data—Findings from the San Francisco Bay Area.

Teleconference Toll Free Number: 1-888-675-2535

Participant Passcode: 8344566

Title: Using Multiday GPS Data

Back to the Calendar.