Summary of Civic Caucus Interview and Responses

As noted previously, I was interviewed by the Minnesota Civic Caucus. In addition to the interview, there are responses to the interview now available, from many different folks, including Margaret Donahoe of the MoveMN lobby. Well worth reading to see the various perspectives on transportation.
David Levinson interview of August 7, 2014


Overview:  Minnesota does not need new transportation projects in order to be competitive, according to David Levinson of the University of Minnesota. There are some bottlenecks that could be addressed, he says, but the primary problem is that we’ve been spending too much on new capital projects and not enough on operating and maintaining the existing system of federal, state and local highways and roads.


User-fee revenues for highways, mainly gas-tax revenues, have been declining in recent years because of fewer trips, more fuel-efficient cars and political resistance at both the federal and state levels to raising the gas tax, he says. Also, a large share of federal Highway Trust Fund revenues have been diverted to pay for transit capital projects, although transit serves only about two percent of all trips nationally.


Levinson discusses a broad range of actions he believes will successfully address these transportation issues.

For the complete interview summary see: Levinson interview

For individual responses to interview see: responses to Levinson


Prison vs. Airport

Prisons and Airports are both among the most secure places we have on earth, protected by guards, so that their residents (inmates, passengers) don’t mix with everyone else.

The Transportation Experience: Second Edition (Garrison and Levinson 2014)
US Domestic Enplanments: Source The Transportation Experience: Second Edition (Garrison and Levinson 2014)

The core difference is that the prison is isolated so that the bad guys stay in, while the airport is isolated so that the bad guys stay out. To get into the airport, you must demonstrate you are safe, while to get into prison, you must be proven to be unsafe.

US Incarceration Timeline, from wikipedia
US Incarceration Timeline, from wikipedia

In the US prison populations and airport passengers have both increased over the decades, though seem to have leveled off in the past few years, such that we are perhaps at both “peak aviation” and “peak prison”.

Perhaps isolation is not the key to safety.




The Transportationist is on MPR’s Daily Circuit. Today 10 am Central.

I got invited back.

I will be having a live in-studio conversation with Kerri Miller on MPR’s Daily Circuit Today (Tuesday October 14 at 10 am Central Time). The other guest is  Adie Tomer of the Brookings Institute/Metropolitan Policy.

Topics are likely to include transportation issues in the midterm elections,  big ideas for transportation’s future, how those ideas get paid for, and who the constituents are in that conversation.


In the Oct. 9 gubernatorial debate, Gov. Mark Dayton and his two opponents named transportation on their list of priorities for the next four years.

Dayton proposed a gas tax increase to pay for his transportation plan, but how to pay for all that’s needed for roads and bridges is a problem that vexes politicians nationwide.

On The Daily Circuit, we talk with two transportation experts about the economics of transportation planning.

Future of the Federal Role in Transportation (webinar now online)

Future of the Federal Role in Transportation

MAP-21, the 2012 federal surface transportation authorization bill, is set to expire later this year. Meanwhile, the Highway Trust Fund faces an insolvency crisis due to rapidly dwindling gas tax revenues, and there appears to be little agreement in Congress on how to fund the federal transportation program. Some say that makes this year ripe for a reconsideration of the federal role in transportation and have proposed devolution of the federal program to the states.

Many states continue to rely on the federal government for a significant portion of their transportation spending, however, and might be challenged to come up with revenues on their own from a limited tax base. This eCademy examined the pros and cons of devolution, the future of the federal role in transportation and what it could all mean for state and local governments.

Future of the Federal Role in Transportation
CSG eCademy
May 29, 2014



Dr. Rohit Aggarwala
Principal, Bloomberg Associates
Full Bio >>
James Corless
Director, Transportation for America
Full Bio >>
Emily Goff
Policy analyst, Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation
Full Bio >>
David Levinson
Professor, University of Minnesota
Full Bio >>

Download the slides in PDF.

Download Prof. David Levinson’s slides in PDF here.

Attachment Size
 RTA short bio.pdf 205.97 KB
 James Corless bio.pdf 134.25 KB
 Goff Bio.pdf 290.28 KB
 DLevinson bio.pdf 148.76 KB
 eCademy2014_FutureFedRoleTransportation (1).pdf 1.62 MB
 FIF-Levinson-CSG.pdf 3.81 MB

Seven types of urban redevelopment sites |

Cross-posted from Seven types of urban redevelopment sites.

Seven Types of Urban Redevelopment Sites

Riding the #16 back from the Writers Conclave, one sees that the Green Line (nee Central Corridor) has left a path of destruction in its wake. From downtown Minneapolis to past the edge of the University of Minnesota, parking ramps, the Star Tribune headquarters, the Metrodome, and WaHu are just some of the largest redevelopment sites oriented toward this line as Minneapolis strives to become Manhattan(or perhaps we should say Maxiopolis).

Green line train on Washington Avenue

Before we are too quick to credit transit investment as the cause of the development, note that even off the line, in places like Uptown, the Wedge,  and Dinkytown, the 2010s say out with the old and in with the new.

Yet regardless of the causes of redevelopment, it is here, it is generating controversy, and that controversy in part is a result of insufficient policy tools.

Hierarchy of Redevelopment (with examples)

I will propose these guidelines for seven types of urban redevelopment sites:

  1. If it’s a vacant lot – Build on it. [Example: 2700 University Avenue (now) ]
  2. If it’s a parking lot – Build on it. [Example: Latitude 45 ]
  3. If it’s a parking ramp – Tear it down and build on it. [Example: 4th and Nicollet ]
  4. If it’s an urban-hostile building (e.g. fast food restaurant with surface parking and a  drive-thru) – Tear it down and build on it. [until we get to the last one]. [Example:WaHu Student Housing (contra: Save the Hat)]
  5. If it’s a really, truly about to fall down building (formally: 5(a) structurally deficient and not cost-effectively  remediable or 5(b) functionally obsolete and not cost-effectively adaptable – and thus abandoned leading to 5(a)) – Tear it down and build on it. [Bad example: Minnesota Multi-Purpose Stadium (leave aside what you should put there, and who should pay for it)]
  6. If it’s an ugly but structurally sound building (i.e. occupied or occupiable) with little or no historic or architectural importance –  Wait until all of the above sites have been completely used up, see if you can do adaptive reuse and improve its attractiveness, then consider tearing it down and building something new on it. [Example: House of HansonDinkytown Hotel/Mesa Pizza, ]
  7. If it’s actually a viable (i.e. occupied or occupiable), attractive or historic, functional building – Wait until all of the above sites have been completely used up, see if you can do adaptive reuse, before even considering tearing it down. [Example: Marshall High School,  Wesbrook Hall]

Nicollet and Fourth, Parking Ramp coming down for Xcel Energy HQ (photo: UrbanMSP)

The examples are far from a complete list, and certainly there will be debate about what constitutes 5, 6, or 7, and lots of nuance and qualitative decisions.

Nevertheless, I think we are far too quick on type 6 and especially type 7 sites when there are so many sites still remaining in categories 1-5 in much if not most of the city. An aerial view of Dinkytown, e.g. will show that surface parking lots are disappearing. It will also show they have not already disappeared (the block between 14th and 15th Avenues and 5th and 4th Streets is more than half parking).

This hierarchy is not simply my personal preference (although it is my personal preference). It is a hierarchy that will lead to better urbanism. As I have written before:

The Marshall - Site old Marshall HS and UTEC

A key lesson is that it is often easier to grow an urban neighborhood from an existing lattice of structures than try to plop one down on a brownfield site. … Thus we should try not to destroy viable structures or neighborhoods until we have considered renovating them and we have exhausted vacant parcels. Of course, one might say, that is the obvious lesson from urban renewal some 50 years ago.

But this still happens: The old Marshall HS in Dinkytown, e.g., or the Colonial Building at Emerald and University on the Central Corridor that has been a vacant parcel for about 7 years now. While construction is well-underway on the Marshall HS site, the Emerald and University site (variously 2700 The Avenue or City Limits Apartments) sits fallow. Things might happen between demolition and construction, so that construction which was planned falls through mid-project.


Economic rationale for the hierarchy

Consider a simple two-block walking route. One block (X) is a functional, occupied one-story building (with doors and windows) and one block (Y) is a zero-story parking lot. To go from A to B one passes the building (which might be interesting), and a parking lot (which probably is not). Now a developer comes in and wants to build a non-awful six-story wood frame apartment building. Where would you rather have him build this. The answer is block Y because then when you are walking, you will walk past two buildings, instead of one building and a parking lot. This improves walkability, which is a good value to have, since it likely increases walking, personal connections with the city, and even retail sales;  but it also improves accessibility (the number of places which can be reached in a given unit of time), which produces positive economic spillovers in the interim. A six story building plus a one story building is better than a six story building and a parking lot.

In the end, both blocks may have apartment buildings, that is fine. But you want to develop the empty lot first because “in the end” is not “right away”, as the recession of 2008-09 showed, and we are losing urbanism in the interim as projects can get deferred a long time. The sequence of development matters. In the interim, the walk accessibility (local density) will be higher when the empty lots are developed before existing buildings are torn down and replaced.

[For the math-inclined, if we integrate accessibility over time, it will be larger if we defer tearing down #6 and especially #7s until after filling all the vacant or vacuous #1-5 sites.]


Improving the sequence of development

Site of the former Wesbrook Hall which was leveled so Northrup Hall could have an outdoor gala space (er, Breathing Room)

Property is private, and developers should  (in order to maintain political stability by ensuring a consistent legal framework (i.e. the US Constitution) that guarantees property rights) be allowed to develop what and where they are legally permitted. But cities intervene in these markets all the time, both through zoning codes (police powers) and subsidies (purse powers).

There are a number of solutions to improve the sequence of development. The land value tax is one, but that has political difficulties in that it creates winners and losers compared to the baseline.

Another idea in this regard is the awarding of Transferable Development Rights on existing #6 and #7 sites that are built less than code allows, which can be transferred to vacant lots to allow those parcels to be developed more intensely. (Thus compensating the sellers for not developing right-away).  These would temporary rights, so if sold, the selling parcel would not be able to be redeveloped more intensively than its current structure (for a period of time (e.g. 10 years)) without either buying rights from other properties, or waiting until the expiration. Of course the buyer would get to build somewhat more intensively than current zoning allows as a permanent structure (so even after the rights expire for the seller, the buyer does not need to unbuild their building).

These kinds of rights are used for agricultural parcels in many places, to preserve agricultural uses in places where it might otherwise be developed into a subdivision as a matter of right. These are also used for air rights developments.

So imagine our scenario above. Instead of redeveloping right-away, the owner of Parcel X sells to the owner of Parcel Y a TDR that defers development on Parcel X for 5 years and gives Parcel Y one extra story. Parcel X gets enough revenue to put off development. Parcel Y may now be slightly more financially feasible with the density bonus. The community gets more walkability in the interim five years.

The only prospective downside is if you don’t like the additional density. TDR donating / receiving areas can be downzoned as part of the package to ensure the end state is no denser than it otherwise would be (so the as-right development would only be 5 stories, with the 6th story coming from the TDR).

Transit Revolution or a Streetcar to Heck? | The Theater of Public Policy

I am scheduled to appear at The Theater of Public Policy where they will be improv-ing Transit Revolution or a Streetcar to Heck?

The University of Minnesota’s resident civil engineering guru is known around the world as The Transportationist. Professor Levinson will join us to talk about the Twin Cities, traffic, streetcars, and why we don’t yet have hover bikes?

Doors at 6:00 – Show at 7:00

Tickets: $10 at the door OR $7 in advance, or $7 at the door with student I.D., kids under 12, or with a Fringe Button.

Buy Tickets here!

  • Monday, April 7, 2014
  • 7:00pm – 8:00pm
  • Bryant Lake Bowl (map)

  • 810 W Lake St

  • Minneapolis, MN 55408

Jurisdictional Overload |

Cross-posted at Jurisdictional Overload :

Jurisdictional Overload


The Minneapolis-St. Paul region has many, many municipalities. Though I hear at international conferences that we have metropolitan government here, that seems a Viking marketing myth (much like the naming of Greenland).

In fact, depending on how you count, the region has 189 Minor Civil Divisions (MCD).


Each is a local unit of government, which may have police, fire, roads, schools, parks, libraries, and many other public services (the scope of services varies, and some jurisdictions share services, and school districts have other boundaries).

Is this too many or too few? In Maryland there are 23 counties (including Baltimore City), and very few incorporated cities. For most people, the county is the smallest unit of government. Thus there is one less layer of government, and the counties achieve economies of scale.

On the other hand, the Tiebout Hypothesis (wikipedia) says:

“[M]unicipalities within a region [offer] varying baskets of goods (government services) at a variety of prices (tax rates). Given that individuals have differing personal valuations on these services and varying ability to pay the attendant taxes, individuals will move from one local community to another until they find the one which maximizes their personal utility. The model states that through the choice process of individuals, jurisdictions and residents will determine an equilibrium provision of local public goods in accord with the tastes of residents, thereby sorting the population into optimum communities. The model has the benefit of solving two major problems with government provision of public goods: preference revelation and preference aggregation.”

Thus we can dial-up the mix of public services and taxes we want by “voting with our feet”.

I am mixed about this. While I am skeptical there are a lot of economies of scale to be had at larger units of government (and there are many diseconomies of scale to be had as well),there are some. But it doesn’t make sense to me that we need 3 layers of government in the roads operations business (state, county, and city), and a fourth (metropolitan) in the roads planning business, when many places get by with 2. We seem to get a lot of buck-passing, and remote governance. Now this isn’t inherently a flaw with minor civil divisions. It is an argument that either cities give up their roads to the county, or the county turns back its roads to the local jurisdictions within.

The difficulty with this is, as many Streets.MN readers know, that e.g. the Hennepin County public works agency is not very innovative or progressive, and tends to resist things likebike lanes and roundabouts, which the city sometimes supports. So why are there Hennepin County roads in Minneapolis, surely the City can manage things adequately? The evidence for this is that most counties are smaller (in population and tax base) than the City of Minneapolis. To do this the City would need to be given the funds the County would have spent in the City anyway. This comes back to highway finance formulas at the State level, and allocation of country property tax revenue. We should of course have a higher state gas tax to replace the local property tax for local roads. But even without that, allocation of funds is a political problem, not a law of nature, and can be overcome if people can agree we are over-governed.

Minneapolis is one thing, what about a smaller municipality, like Richfield, or Lauderdale? If an MCD is too small to manage its roads, it can join with neighbors, just as municipalities often join for libraries or schools, or police. Or there can be some cities which manage all their roads, and others which let the county manage all their roads.


Technical solutions for policy problems; Policy solutions for technical problems

The transportation sector is rife with technology/policy mismatches. We often seek new to develop or deploy technologies to solve what are ultimately policy problems; and we often try to implement policies to solve what are ultimately technical problems. Attaching the correct domain to the problem is the first step in solving it.

As an example of the first, consider any transportation investment aimed at expanding capacity to address congestion. The policy failure here is the lack of peak-period pricing (and secondarily location-specific pricing) that would ration scarce capacity. Instead we move to a ‘predict and provide’ mode, and where we fail to provide, we ration by queueing. Whether or not we should build a project to expand accessibility from a place, we should not expand capacity to expand accessibility only at a given time-of-day until we have properly priced the network, so that travelers consider the externalities they impose and pay the full marginal costs of their trip.

The best illustrations include your typical freeway widening. A widening by definition just expands capacity (which is only relevant in the peak hours), and does nothing to expand accessibility during the rest of the day, since no new places are connected. The road may very well be congested, which is what you would expect when you give something valuable away at below marginal cost. The capacity expansions often don’t have the desired effect on congestion reduction due to induced demand in the short run, and induced development in the longer run.

Transit projects are often billed as “congestion reducing”. This is the one of the worst reasons to invest in transit. It is as if we said a new highway reduces crowding on the bus or the bike lanes. Transit investments should be justified by the benefits they provide to existing and new transit users, not on some marginal third-party actor. Yet we see this claim all the time. [I know, the claim is marketing to induce non-users to see a benefit for the enormous subsidy they are providing, but it is intellectually dishonest]. I won’t say there is never a highway congestion reduction by-product, as if the project does gain new riders, at least some of them may have otherwise been driving a car during peak times, but that is a third-order effect that often does not appear in the traffic statistics.

As an example of out-of-sync policy approaches to technical problems, consider emissions reduction. Automobile emissions are a problem for many reasons, not the least of which is public health. Emissions can be thought of as a logical chain of calculations like this:

Tailpipe Emissions = (Number of Motor Vehicle Trips) * (Average Trip Length (Miles)) * (Fuel Efficiency (Gallons / Mile)) * (Emission Rate (Pollutants/Gallon))

The land use and transportation planning side of things (policy) tries affect behavior to reduce number of vehicle trips and average trip length. The technology side of the equation tries to improve fuel efficiency and reduce pollution per unit of fuel burned. There are policies that can encourage the development of the technology (CAFE standards) and technologies which can reduce average trip length, like elevators and skyscrapers. But the opportunity to practically eliminate emissions can only come from driving one of these numbers to zero.

Electric cars at Imperial - 2

My bet would be that it is far easier to change the power plant on the fleet (through electrification), and the pollutants per gallon through more efficient combustion if you continue to burn liquid fuel, than to get number of motor vehicle trips or trip length close to zero. In the US, we might be able to take baby steps towards behavioral change, but we are starting from an existing built environment, an existing economic make-up, and existing transportation networks that took a century to build and will take a century to unwind. We have climbed Mt. Auto, and atop Mt. Auto, Mt. Not-Auto is very distant.

In short I claim the vehicle fleet, which turns over every 10 or so years, is more malleable than land use, which turns over every 50 years, or road networks, which effectively don’t turn over, or travel behavior in the absence of pricing.

This is not to say people should not be encouraged to walk (or bike if masochistic) and locate near jobs if feasible. Similarly, developers should not be needlessly discouraged or prohibited from high densities so long as they internalize costs or pays off the losers. But the reasons behind that are fundamentally private (that is what people prefer) rather than for the good of the environment. Preferences too are malleable, to a point, but reprogramming 300 million individual, customized brains takes time and effort, and the population only turns over generationally.

I walk (even in the snow and ice). There are many reasons people may want to not drive their car, or not drive as much. Personal cost and pleasure are among them. But to promote those policies as serious efforts to address pollution problems, when technical solutions are available is Sisyphean. Induced demand rears its beloved head. A large part of the reductions in VMT from one set of sources will be eaten by another, even if we have macroscopic trends working (very slowly) in a favorable direction, like peak travel.

There are potentially effective travel demand management (TDM) strategies. Pricing (as per above) is the most effective, if only it could be implemented. By all means, impose a carbon tax, but that will have very small effects on overall behavior unless the tax itself is very large.

Sadly, most policies, short of pricing, aimed at TDM have been dismally unsuccessful. Land use changes are slow at best, and there is little guarantee that new development will do much to actually reduce vehicle emissions, most people don’t work or live on site, and new transit oriented developments are not in dense environments to do enough to enable people to forego much auto travel.

Similarly, improving the efficiency of roads (transportation systems management or TSM) through strategies like improved signal coordination and ramp metering are modest in their gains.

This is the classic hammer/nail conundrum. Some people want to help save the world. This is a wonderful and potentially socially-productive endeavor. Yet, their only tool is a hammer. Their conclusion is that saving the world is a nail, when it is really a snowglobe. We would be better served by finding nails for the hammer users, and rags for the snowglobe tenderers.

To get meta about this, policies which provide proper incentives can help match the wannabe heroes with the real Penelope Pitstops . Technologies can help with the matchmaking market as well, as has proven so popular in the dating world.

Sequester and the Lump of Government Mistake

It is March 1, 2013 and apparently a sequester is going to be implemented by the US Federal Government. Most sectors of government are going to be cut by some fixed amount. Much has been written about how stupid this is. The proximate cause is the immediate stupidity of politicians trying to create a Sword of Damocles above their colleagues to get them to do something less stupid. There is a root cause. This is what I call the “Lump of Government Mistake”.

Almost all agencies of the federal government are on the general budget, paid for from general revenue, with an annual appropriate cycle. This need not be the case.
We should have many separate agencies, each with their own user-based revenue sources, for as many parts of government as possible. For instance Highways already have a Highway Trust Fund (underfunded perhaps, but that is a relatively simple problem if there is an actual desire to govern responsibly).
Air Traffic Control should be handled by a private corporation paid for from some kind of user fee on aircraft movements, like it is in Canada or New Zealand, not part of the Lump of Government.

National Parks should be owned by a Foundation (or better multiple Foundations) that charges admission to users to cover costs, not part of the Lump of Government.
Food Inspection Services should be a Non-Profit Corporation paid for by a small tax on food producers (like the Food Marketing Boards) and administered separately, not part of the Lump of Government.

We can go on and identify many parts of government that can easily be hived off into separable, self-sustaining, non-profit organizations.

Once we did that, the threat of Sequester disrupting the obviously generally useful things that happen to be socialized in the US makes a lot less sense.

Clearly there are exceptions, true public goods like National Defense and Foreign Relations perhaps. Research is another example. Similarly interest (and principal) on the accumulated debt needs to be handled somehow. Everyone receives “defense services” from the Department of Defense (whether you want it or not), so it needs to be paid for from a general revenue source. But this need not be the same general revenue source as used for income redistribution (like Social Security), or health insurance (like Medicaid or Medicare). In fact it is not. Social Security taxes pay for Social Security. Why should not Defense taxes (e.g. a VAT) pay for Defense. If Congress wants more, it raises the VAT rate associated with Defense, if it wants less, it lowers the rate.
The National Science Foundation similarly should not be subject to the vagaries of annual budgets. Like any good foundation, it should have an endowment, and live off the interest.

Every function would have its own associated source of funds and rates, and would stand or fall on its own merits. Horse trading would still exist, but this notion of cutting useful self-sustainable services as collateral damage for reducing the Defense sector would be eliminated.

If this feels familiar, I made basically the same point locally in July 2011 when the State of Minnesota shut down: Lessons from the state shutdown. Avoiding fragility in governance. I wrote a lot, but the main points was:

I propose the lesson to be learned is that, to avoid a total government shutdown, the government should not be totally central.