Prices before Pavements

Alon Levy writes “The most important principle for infrastructure planning in developed countries is organization before electronics before concrete. ”

A shorter version of this is “prices before pavements”.

We cannot know how much pavement we need until we charge the appropriate price for the pavement we have. Since drivers don’t pay the full cost the externalities they generate, foremost congestion, they over-consume road transportation. Since we use unpriced usage of facilities as a guide about where to build new roads and widen existing ones, we probably generally over-build compared to the priced equilibrium (even if we still have congestion), though it is hard to say, since we don’t have a priced comparison point, and model forecasts are hard.

This phenomenon of over-construction is not surprising. It follows from micro-economic theory and we have evidence of over-consumption every day in every major American city. We have evidence of under-pricing. We have evidence that when prices rise, consumption falls (e.g. gas prices, London, Stockholm).

So where is the failure in this collective action problem?

Historically road pricing was expensive to implement, particularly compared to fuel taxes, and toll collection would create its own congestion. Today’s electronic toll collection obviates the congestion creating aspects of tollbooths. However collection costs are still higher (and in practice, nothing could be easier than a gas tax, where you collect funds at the refinery). But even with those additional collection costs, the benefits of congestion reduction in places that suffer congestion should be enough to justify a more serious effort at pricing, leave aside the general benefits from less pollution and so on.

Today, no one is incentivized to raise prices on existing facilities. 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. Voter/taxpayers do not trust that increased revenue will be wisely used (and they are not necessarily wrong), and believe that if government just redistributed the revenue, that still imposes a cost (which it does, but again, not so much as to negate the benefits). This is true with gas taxes (which finds that tax escalators get rolled back). It is certainly more true with a new tax that people have no experience with.

States have little incentive to internalize externalities that are imposed globally, or on residents of other states, and little incentive to raise prices much higher than the prices in surrounding states, which may be engaged in tax competition. (They do have an incentive to raise tolls on their border though – as they can engage in tax exporting.)

Moveover, there is prospect theory, which suggests people feel losses more deeply than gains. A tax or toll or user fee is a known loss of revenue for an uncertain gain in travel time savings (which we don’t really value well either). [See also this different take on the implications of prospect theory on road pricing in Singapore by Anthony Chin.]

This suggests there is a governance problem. Even if a state raises some gas taxes to pay for transportation maintenance and construction, that would not be sufficient to internalize the external costs of travel. That would be politically impossible in the current regime in the US.

Which leads to the thought, if a good idea like road pricing is politically impossible under the current road ownership regime, perhaps changing the regime changes the political calculus: I discussed this in Enterprising Roads. Roads should be more like other public utilities, which provide a service and levy a charge to pay for the costs of that service, are are regulated not directly by the legislature, but instead by a body like the public utility commission.

I don’t know which is less politically impossible.

I think evidence supports the notion that expecting widespread road pricing at anything near the full cost of travel under the current road ownership/governance regime in the US is practically impossible anytime soon.

We may get voluntary odometer charges of some kind instead of the gas tax (Oregon), particularly for electric vehicles. We may get a city like New York or San Francisco try an urban congestion charge. We will certainly get more HOT lanes and more tolling on new roads (e.g. Southern California). But these are all nibbling around the edges.

The great white whale is full cost pricing, where prices vary by time of day (very important) and location, as well as amount of emissions (very important) and crash probabilities.

Perfect pricing will never be achieved, how close to perfect can we actually achieve?

Or will some new technologies just make obsolete all our concerns about externalities, just as we never got around to full cost pricing on horses?



Imagine no traffic engineers, it’s easy if you try.

No lines below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today…

Imagine no transportation planners, it isn’t hard to do.

No homes to relocate
And no forecasts too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace…

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one

Imagine all the people sharing all the roads.

I wonder if you can
No need for speed or violence
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world…



We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of “separate but equal” has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. Therefore, we hold that the plaintiffs and others similarly situated for whom the actions have been brought are, by reason of the segregation complained of, deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.  [US Supreme Court]

There was a world before traffic engineers. We should ask “What problems were the traffic engineers trying to solve when the profession was first created?”

The life of urban streets, which was often chaotic without cars, became magnitudes more dangerous with the onslaught of the automobile. The story is now well documented in Peter Norton’s excellent history Fighting Traffic. The solutions worked, to an extent, in that fatality rates have steadily fallen, in part due to traffic engineering (as well as vehicle design and safety features, emergency response, medical care, better driver education, better highway engineering, alcohol regulation, and other factors).

VMT vs. Death per VMT Source:
VMT vs. Death per VMT Source:

But the solutions to one set of problems begets a new set of problems. Now I would probably trade the problems of 1915 for the problems of 2015. The world is a much better and safer place overall. But just because the solution of the traffic engineer is better than the world before, doesn’t mean it is the best possible world.

The profession has locked in on a number of sub-par tools, including AASHTO Green Book, ITE Trip Generation Handbook (critique), the Highway Capacity Manual and Level of Service. [Comment, these books, which should be free, open content, are quite expensive.] While there are those fighting the good fight, that fight is an upstream battle against the status quo.

In the parlance of Twitter #NotAllTrafficEngineers are unthinking technicians following cookie-cutter requirements of standards manuals, but far too many are.

So when I repurpose John Lennon’s Imagine, I, like Lennon, understand the impracticality of the dream (if it were practical, it would not need a song crying for it to be imagined). It would be great if people could safely and efficiently navigate themselves (or have their robots do it for them), without need for the external quite visible guiding hand of the traffic engineer. Clearly modally separate transportation facilities are inherently unequal. And not everything can be equal, but perhaps things should be less unequal.  Shared space is a step in this direction, though most modern shared spaces are engineered, but they are engineered with the idea that travelers (drivers, bikers, walkers) need to interact directly, unmediated by light bulbs and reflective signs.

In short




“Investors want to believe in someone. Forecasters want to earn a living. One of those groups is going to be disappointed. I think you know which.” [Housel, 2014]

There was a world before transportation planners. The problem the new field of transportation planning was trying to solve: Where do you locate facilities, and how wide they should be?

There were roads and railroads built before a transportation planning profession began to profess. Surveyors surveyed. Rail engineers laid ways. Politicos drew lines on maps. Traffic counters forecast. Many roads emerged as deer paths or Indian trails without any conscious design. Cities, counties, and states somehow made roads line up at the border without the need for a higher level of government. Many properties of the general structure of the network can and do emerge organically (like the Hierarchy of Roads). Yet once we want more roads than ancient trails, someone has to decide where to put a new road.

1946 Interstate Highway Plan
1946 Interstate Highway Plan

With the Interstate Highway System, this question became more urgent. The formalization and bureaucratization in the post-World War II era led to transportation planning forming one of the keystones of the rationalist movement. Travel demand forecasting models were designed to size the freeways – roughly should they have two or three lanes in each direction — the logic is best summarized in the phrase “Predict and Provide”. The general system was laid out in 1946, well before computer models, though the specific routes within cities, and the exact rights-of-way took longer.

Because they were publicly provided and largely unpriced, we built more than countries where such roads were private and toll-funded, and as a consequence we drive more than those places. We cannot blame transportation planners for highways slicing cities, that was a decision of mayors representing urban elites — a decision made in ignorance of the consequences (but why would we repeat the error in so many cities?). We can blame them for nurturing zombie lines on maps, contracts with the long dead about future roads never needed that once built induced their own demand and development, making their “need” self-fulfilling. We can blame them for forecasts that were too low for many years and then were/are too high because they failed to understand the structure of demand, socio-economic change, and the potential of technology. We can blame them for thinking one-dimensionally (capacity) about problems that have both supply and demand aspects. We can blame them for justifying and providing the sheen of scientism over the tortuous tracks of civic officials and greed of the growth machine.

#NotAllTransportationPlanners fail to understand the changes that are occurring, and have occurred, but far too many do.




Everything has a design. Not everything has a designer.

Interaction requires rules (tacit or explicit, understood in advance or created on the fly). Not all rules are created by lawyers or legislators or engineers.

The future emerges, it is not centrally planned, it is not (accurately) forecast.

There was a world before modal segregation, before extreme channelization, before standards, before cookie-cutter mass production of road designs.

We cannot return to the past, but we can be informed by it. We can look at things that worked better (like pedestrian travel times in a pre-modally segregated world), and worse (like pedestrian fatalities in a pre-modally segregated world), and see if there are other ways to achieve the optimal mix. It may require a new profession, one that is neither “traffic engineering” nor “transportation planning” in the traditional sense. What would this look like?





With all due respect to John Lennon.


Charlotte, North Carolina

I was in Charlotte for AASHTO as the token academic. AASHTO – The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (which used to be AASHO, so you know the lineage) is the organization of state DOTs, and is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year.

The conference was well organized, with lots of entertainment for the crowd and lots of food at the dinners. Few seemed ready to acknowledge the maturity of their industry, and many still wanted to go back to the go-go days (1920-2000) of rapid steady growth. The crowd did however acknowledge their fiscal stuckness. My impressions below:

AASHTO Annual Meeting
AASHTO Annual Meeting
  1. Charlotte Downtown is less than I imagined. I don’t know what I expected, and maybe I am just getting jaded, but Charlotte feels like a McDowntown, sanitized and homogenized with all of the features a downtown is supposed to have (tall buildings, bricks in the sidewalk, cultural amenities, and so on) that I am supposed to be interested in, yet it misses something by having destroyed almost everything that was there 50 years ago.
  2. Mert’s is good soul food (I had turkey sausage on rice and beans, plus excellent cornbread).
  3.  The downtown has a few tall buildings, connected by skyways, but is surrounded by surface parking lots. I guess these are slated to be future development, but it would have been better to build on all of it and build shorter. Or better, leave the previous buildings standing rather than level them for parking.
  4. This Levine guy owns lots of land and is very philanthropic (the money is from Family Dollar stores).
  5. The LRT (Lynx) is a short stub through downtown (19 miles total, including built and under construction), though it is elevated in the center city. A CityLynx streetcar (1.5 miles) is under construction.

    The elevated LRT in Charlotte
    The elevated LRT in Charlotte
  6. There is a nice bus terminal, and the LRT is integrated into adjacent buildings.
    The Charlotte Bus Hub connects to the LRT, and has passenger serving retail. This is how you do it.
    The Charlotte Transit Center Bus Hub connects to the LRT, and has passenger serving retail. This is how you do it.
  7. The Westin hotel is a nice venue.
  8. NASCAR Hall of Fame is everything you expect and more. The race driving simulator was cool, though most people seemed to crash.

    The Fabulous Hudson Hornet. It's real, not just in a cartoon.
    The Fabulous Hudson Hornet. It’s real, not just in a cartoon.
  9. The Charlotte Motor Speedway is an impressive operation. Though note, they did “right-size” the seating at the track. They also paint their seats random colors to make it look more full than it is. There are condominiums on the race track, that people own, most of them businesses, but some people actually live there. They are not cheap.
  10. Really, they love them some stock cars down in Charlotte. See That’s Transportainment.
  11. There really is a huge divide between Red and Blue America. Red states are both more hierarchical and respectful of authority and military, and more hedonistic with their good-ole-boys, booze, fetish for fast cars, and profligate lifestyle. It’s been a while since I lived in Atlanta, but the south (and north) are quite different.
  12. Physically Charlotte feels a lot like a small version of Midtown Atlanta.

    The Epicentre of it all
    The Epicentre of it all
  13. As in Texas, the Customer Service culture is stronger here than Minnesota.

Airport gate attendants call out their flight to passing pedestrians to their flight. Not so much as to lure people onto a flight to Greensboro, but to help people find their flight. Photos are on Flickr.

Dallas, Texas

After my Fort Worth trip,   I took TRE to visit Dallas and walk around there. My Pedometer records 16000 steps that day, most of them in Dallas. Dallas is not a particular walkable city. It has an LRT network, loading 4 lines onto the central downtown link. This means each line has a 15 minute headway, leaving a spacing between trains in downtown of 3.75 minutes. The 15 minute headway is not high frequency. There is also a nascent heritage streetcar line, which I saw but did not ride.

Streetcars and skyways are found in the Big D.
Streetcars and skyways are found in the Big D.
Transit Information Signs tell you when the Green Line is coming, unfortunately every 15 minutes. No need to check schedules though.
Transit Information Signs tell you when the Green Line is coming, unfortunately every 15 minutes. No need to check schedules though.
Dealy Plaza, with a statue of Dealy.
Dealy Plaza, with a statue of Dealy.
Seafood and Streetcars
Seafood and Streetcars
A HAWK Signal, in operation. I made cars stop in Dallas.
A HAWK Signal, in operation. I made cars stop in Dallas.
Walkable DFW. I think I was the first pedestrian.
Walkable DFW. I think I was the first pedestrian.
Dallas Union Station, serves the Commuter Rail TRE.
Dallas Union Station, serves the Commuter Rail TRE.
The West End
The West End
Map of my photos of Dallas
Map of my photos of Dallas

Kendra Levine of the Harmer E. Davis library suggested that if I go to Dallas I visit the Book Depository. Since it was adjacent to the train station (which I discovered as we pulled into Dallas) I did so from the outside, and saw Dealy Plaza. Looking at the site in person, it is easily small enough to have been a single gunman from the 6th floor of the Book Depository (now a government building), Based on the legendary reports, I imagined a much large site. Anyway, no need for a vast conspiracy on that. Oswald did it and he did it alone.

This gruesome tourist attraction is located in the historic West End of Dallas. Aside from the international tourists visiting the assassination scene, there was not a lot going on.

Dallas feels most like Atlanta, though it is flatter and less canopied. WalkableDFW  has a lot of work ahead of it. Selected photos below. Check the full set of photos on Flickr.


DFW airport is huge, the size of Manhattan. There is apparently an LRT from Dallas to DFW.  From Fort Worth, the TRE in theory goes to the “Airport” but it is miles away and requires two bus transfers. Also the frequency is at least 40 minutes, and sometimes 2 hours.

Fort Worth, Texas

Interurban Lines: Speed with Safety, securely stationed at the rail station
Interurban Lines: Speed with Safety, securely stationed at the TRE rail station

I visited Fort Worth recently for an AGI conference on the Future of the Methane Economy. I shared my slides previously and learned a lot. Since we were sworn to silence, I won’t discuss how I was the person there arguing that (a) CO2 emissions were rising, and (b) natural gas folks should talk about this since they do better than their fossil fuel competitors (if not as well as renewables).

Plans for future redevelopment
Plans for future redevelopment

Instead I will talk about Fort Worth and Dallas, two cities I had never been to before the conference. Today Fort Worth, Monday Dallas.

Fort Worth

Well-lit plaza in Fort Worth
Well-lit plaza in Fort Worth
The local trolley is not electrified
The local trolley requires no wires
Even the surface parking lots are nicely dressed up.
Even the surface parking lots are nicely dressed up.

Fort Worth is the lesser known core city in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. If Dallas (on I-35E) is Minneapolis (on I-35W), Ft. Worth (on I-35W) is St. Paul (on I-35E). It is less afflicted by the rush to modernity, at a smaller scale, with a walkable downtown with relatively low structures, many of them dating to the early 20th century. The blocks are square and small, the sidewalks made of bricks,  the streets narrow and one-way, but the parking garages remain tall and mighty.

Map of my photos in Fort Worth
Map of my photos in Fort Worth
Neon lights on Main Street
Neon lights on Main Street

There weren’t too many people out on the streets, and aside from the Pedal Pub I think I saw only one bicycle in 3 days. Throughout though, I felt reminded that the Customer Service culture is stronger here (and in the south generally) than Minnesota.

A nice plaza facing an historic building.
A nice plaza facing an historic building.

Football is huge. The Cowboys of course, but in Fort Worth, TCU seems a really big deal. Much more than the Vikings in Minnesota, and vastly more than the Gophers. Of course, TCU was at the time actually competing for a national championship.

The Parking Ramps dominate just outside the core
The Parking Ramps dominate just outside the core
Bus stop in Downtown Fort Worth.
Bus stop in Downtown Fort Worth.

Fort Worth is connected to Dallas by major highways (I-30), as well as TRE, a commuter rail line. View the Fort Worth photos on Flickr.


Twin Cities seven-county sales tax for transit

I talked about the sales tax on gas before.

MoveMN, the local infrastructure lobby, has a  second major proposal. This one is for transit funding in the Twin Cities metropolitan area. They propose:

Increase the Twin Cities seven-county sales tax ($342 million)

The current ¼ cent metro sales tax has helped build the new Green Line (Central Corridor) and Red Line (BRT from Apple Valley to Mall of America), and fund half the cost of operating the region’s transitways. The sales tax is not enough to build the transit system the region needs to foster long-term economic development. Move MN proposed increasing the current sales tax by ¾ cent, applying the sales tax in all seven counties and using a small portion (10 percent) of the tax to fund safe and accessible bike and pedestrian connections in the metro. The seven-county sales tax for transit would become a full one cent.

The additional transit funding would essentially complete the current Metropolitan Council transit plan within 15 years, including expanding bus service hours and coverage creating faster commutes for Metro Transit and suburban transit bus systems, as well as a wider network of bikeway and pedestrian connections.

The Sales Tax

Ideally transit would be paid for by user fees. But given roads are not, this would result in there being very little transit, since fares would be very high, and users driven away. Still, these could be higher.

So if you can’t use user fees, what’s the next best solution? Land value capture. This is nowhere to be seen. Why not? Concentrated losses for concentrated benefits.

And if you can’t use land value capture, what’s next best? An employer tax perhaps, since low transit fares subsidize workers (as well as non-workers) and allow firms to offer lower wages than they would if transit fares were full cost. Concentrated losses for concentrated benefits.

And if you can’t tax users and  can’t tax land and can’t tax employers, maybe you can tax competing modes. After all, everyone on the road wants everyone else on the road to use transit. This is more viable for suburban-downtown serving transit routes, but that certainly describes the Twin Cities region’s proposed transitways.

And if you can’t do any of the above, then general funds might be appropriate. Especially since transit has a social function for moving people who have few choices. This gives us diffuse losses for concentrated benefits, and is so politically more palatable.

But if you want to use general funds, surely you would want to have a tax that wasn’t regressive, like a progressive income tax rather than a sales tax.

USC Professor Lisa Schweitzer says (about Toronto and LA, but it applies here as well)

California-based urban planning expert Lisa Schweitzer
Ms. Schweitzer, who has studied the politics of sales taxes in the context of L.A.’s transportation infrastructure, said as with any funding measure, there is a “tradeoff.” Cities such as Los Angeles and Toronto can raise substantial sums through sales taxes, which are more politically palatable than some other revenue generators, she noted. “They’re easy to collect, they’re easy for people to pay; you don’t have to deal with the taxman, you just pay at point of purchase,” Ms. Schweitzer said. A major concern, however, is volatility. “They go up and down based on the business cycle and they run parallel with the business cycle, so when retail sales plummet, the take that you get from retail sales taxes also goes down,” Ms. Schweitzer said. “That can be a problem for transit agencies that are dependent on these sales taxes.”

Again, we are now at a high point in the economic cycle (6th year of expansion), so it looks like sales taxes are a great idea from a revenue perspective, but when the next economic collapse comes, oh, about 1 or 2 years into the next Clinton/Bush administration, and revenue tanks, just when we should be building infrastructure for macro-economic stimulus, we can’t. This is not as unstable as the sales tax on gas, but it is hardly a bedrock on which we should fund the system. (Perhaps if we are selling bonds backed by sales tax revenue, that worry can be diminished, but bonds are more risky and thus costly than pay-as-you-go, see the idea of interest rates).

The 10%

Now, let’s say you have this new pot of money. The MoveMN folks bought off the all-powerful bike lobby (who seem to be on-board with this proposal, as card-carrying members of MoveMN)  with a 10% share for a “safe and accessible bike and pedestrian connections in the metro. ”

So though biking and walking has a higher mode share than transit, it only gets 1/10 of the total funds. Someone is not negotiating well. [Hint – it’s the completely unorganized pedestrians.]

Obviously pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure is relatively inexpensive, so from one perspective it doesn’t “need” as much. But from an efficiency point-of-view, since it is so inexpensive, walking and biking should have a much higher return on investment.

Whatever really has the highest rate of return should be the highest priority for investing a new pot of money. The problem is establishing this, since there is so much economic development Voodoo floating around that no one believes.

If your aim were to maximize the number of people using modes other than auto for a given trip, you would take your pot and spend it on relatively inexpensive separated cycletracks and improving the local urban environment to increase walking  and then local arterial BRT before you spend it on high-capital, high-risk projects with low rates of return.

Bicycle Trust Fund

On the Minneapolis Community Indicators project, someone (undoubtedly not a bicyclist) suggested bicyclists should have to pay a fee or license to use bike lanes (an idea totally tangential to the idea of the Indicators project which is about measuring success).

According to jailed car salesman Denny Hecker, Nobody Walks.
According to jailed car salesman Denny Hecker, Nobody Walks.

This drew some snarky comments on the super-secret writers-only exclusive mailing list, and was ultimately silenced out of respect for state of people’s inboxes.

I (not a hard core bicyclist either, but in a world with better facilities, perhaps) suggested that Bicycling would get more respect at the table, and more resources, if bicycle owners and/or users paid some amount of money to support bicycle infrastructure.

For instance, a $10/year fee for registering a bike would raise more than a million dollars a year in Minneapolis (I am estimating more than 100,000 bikes in the city, and given bike sales > car sales, this doesn’t seem too out of line, I don’t actually know how many there are, or how effective a registration program would be), which would go a long way toward bike infrastructure.

Bike advocates should reframe and embrace. The Bicycle Trust Fund could be very powerful.

Some suggest the funds for bicycle infrastructure should be provided by the public out of general revenue. My first thought is, how is that working for you so far? If you are happy with the level of bike infrastructure in America’s number one bike city, Minneapolis, carry on. If you think it should be better, you can rally and exhort, but you can also bring some money to the table.

In contrast with sidewalks, which are largely maintained (or not) by adjacent property owners, and paid for from special assessments, bike paths are treated more like roads. Also, keep in mind, everyone walks, not everyone bikes.
Certainly car owners don’t pay for 100% of the cost of road infrastructure (like 50% of operating and capital costs, but depends how you count), but they pay more than non-car owners due to gas taxes and vehicle registration fees. For better or worse, this allows a lot of car-oriented infrastructure to get built.
Transit users don’t pay for 100% of the cost of riding transit (like 33% of operating costs and 0% of capital costs), but they pay more than non-transit users due to fares. This allows transit routes to be somewhat more widespread than otherwise.
There is a perception bike riders are free riders. Bike riders do not pay more for the available bike infrastructure than non-bike riders. Is this perception wrong? Step-up (or pedal-up) and claim some rights and funds in exchange for some responsibilities and “user fees”.
I realize the Minneapolis tax collection bureaucracy has high overhead, but there should be ways to do this and get a pot of money together. If you think a $10 annual fee is too administratively complex, make a $30  fee at the point of sale and/or at bike registration. Exclude bikes older than 3 years.
If you think the bike-tax cops will harass poor bicyclists, make it a secondary rather than primary offense, so you can’t get pulled over for it.
If you are worried about kids, set it up so parents pay for kids, or make it only for bikes > 20″ wheel or some such … there are a lot of strategies.
Think creatively.
Cross-posted on

a blog about Networks and Places


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,304 other followers