One of the problems that afflicts any public service as widely used as transportation is that everyone has an opinion. In fact, everyone *is* an expert on their own commute. The problem is the generalization from anecdote to data (data is not the plural of anecdote). Just because someone understands their own travel patterns doesn’t mean that individual understands everyone else’s.
An assumption, satirized in The Onion, is that transit is a solution to transportation problems, because other people will take transit.
While evidence is thatPublic transit ridership up in U.S., by 32% since 1995 (to the highest levels since 1957), which is explained in part by high gas prices, and in part by the huge investment in rail transit in the past three decades, this number is still overall quite small. It should be noted that Vehicle Miles Traveled grew 24% in the same period (and has been flat the past several years, so the increase is slightly faster than overall demand (of course, comparing trips to miles isn’t really right, since distances change. Total transit mode share in the US is on the order of 5% for work trips (depending on how you measure) according to this article A Closer Look at Public Transportation Mode Share Trends by Polzin and Chu, but that it only carries about 1% of total passenger miles traveled in the US.
If you tell people, even transportation professionals, that transit carries only 1% of travel in the US, they are usually surprised. Why?
The answer in part lies in an observation bias. To illustrate: imagine there are two buses, one carries 49 people, one carries 1 rider. The average ridership is 25 passengers per bus. (49+1)/2 = 25.
However, the perceived average from riders would be (i.e. the rider-weighted average) is (49*49 + 1*1)/50 = 48.04 passengers per bus. The mis-estimate by using an on-board observer weighting rather than a systems weighting is nearly 100%. (Lest you think this is a straw man example, consider dead-heading commuter trains, with 500 passengers inbound in the morning and very few or none (if the agency truly deadheads) outbound)
The same mis-estimate occurs on highways, where congestion is over-estimated because more people experience congestion than its absence. No one is there to observe a truly empty road.
Harry S. Truman was one of the leaders of the “Good Roads” movement. He inherited this interest from his father John, who was road overseer in Washington Township Missouri in 1913. Harry Truman later became county judge in Jackson County, and was in charge of appointing road overseers. After losing re-election in 1924, he sold memberships in the Kansas City Automobile Club and then became President of the National Old Trails Road Association. After being re-elected in 1926, he helped get Jackson County out of the mud, with one of the largest local road-building programs in the US ensuring an all-weather (i.e. paved) road served every farm.
Ultimately as President, he could have been father to the Interstate System, which was planned, but not funded during his administration, had the Korean War not intervened and made funding scarce.
The Man Who Loved Roads , May/June 2002 Public Roads
Harry S. Truman on Good Roads
In the column Filling Up , professional Blogger Matthew Yglesias talks about “Filling Up” the spaces around cities. “The problem issue the traffic which is bad everywhere anyone wants to be.”
A solution Yglesias seems to miss: create places where people want to be elsewhere, i.e. if all the current good places are taken (and too expensive in terms of time and money), then create new good places where land is cheaper, either suburbs, satellite cities, or make other existing places “good”. Economies of agglomeration, while they still exist, are clearly not what they used to be, and downtowns are far less important. Managing the positive feedback loop that are cities/real estate/accessibility is no easy trick, but it takes a special kind of elitism to think that “interesting places” (to use the term from Brad DeLong’s post are inherently limited to a few large cities with long commute times.
(full quote “The filling-up of America so that you can no longer build a detached single-family house within half-an-hour’s driving time of the interesting places people want to be, and the consequent rise both in current location premia and expected future location premia”)
This Census Bureau Table gives commute times in large cities in the United States. In short, only three cities had an average over 30 minutes (New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia) though another few come close (Go Baltimore!). As a Baltimore native, I take pride we almost make DeLong’s list of interesting places, but I am sure I could find reasonably priced housing within 30 minutes of downtown if I wanted to.
From the Washington Post: Letting the Market Drive Transportation, an article about the Bush administration’s support for toll roads and road privatization, and the internal politics at the top level of USDOT.
From the NY Times: Video Road Hogs Stir Fear of Internet Traffic Jam
There are some nice quotes by my colleague and co-author Andrew Odlyzko. Internet traffic growth is estimated at 50% a year, which is still very large, but one suspects that percentage growth will continue to slow as saturation is reached for various internet markets. We continue to march up an S-shaped curve, exponential growth does not continue forever. The ability to use cable or wireless bandwidth more efficiently, and to expand capacity is huge, even assuming no major technological advances. One wishes transportation networks had similar flexibility.
The other point to be noted is the continuing use of transportation metaphors (road hog and traffic jam) to describe the internet. Transportation metaphors provide a way to connect readers with the subject, but we should not go too far down the road of employing metaphors when a direct description of the technology will do.
EETimes.com – ‘Jihad’ study roils engineering
It has been noted here (and here before that Osama Bin Laden and Yassir Arafat and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad were all Civil Engineers, but according to sociologists, that is not mere coincidence, it is a sociologically predictable phenomenon.
I have long said Transportation Engineering is the last bastion of socialism in the US (almost all the roads are state-owned, and queues are quite common due to undersupply and lack of a price signal, attributes of a socialist economy), but who knew we civil engineers were also the source of Islamo-Fascism. Of course, to a post-modernist those are both the same, as being parts of “totalizing narratives” as my Marxist Geography professor would have noted (not that he was a post-modernist).
Perhaps the critical question is why do would-be terrorists want to have engineering as their back-up job? Is there something about the terrorist mindset that causes engineering to be an appealing second choice should bombing innocent civilians not work out or not pay as well as hoped? Perhaps the skills obtained in trying to make bombs (wiring, systems thinking, etc.) and destroy are easily transferred to making durable structures.
Or maybe we should ask what it is about non-terrorists that make them less likely to be engineers? Clearly engineers are in general useful to society, what personality trait are non-terrorist wannabes missing that discourages them from undertaking an education in engineering.
The original article would appear to be reasonably well-researched given the dearth of data about the nebulous underworld. Yet of course correlation is not causality.