The Free Harbor Fight: Transportation Meets Chinatown

Unlike its natural rivals—San Diego, San Francisco, and Seattle—Los Angeles is a rotten place for a port. But that hasn’t stopped the city known for inventing and reinventing itself from becoming the busiest container traffic hub in the US. The story of how L.A. transformed itself into one of the world’s great shipping centers is rife with corruption, power politics, double-dealing, bribery, and betrayal. It’s a story that could only have dripped from the pen of one of the city’s Hollywood hacks--if it weren’t true.

Despite its worldwide association with sand and surf, Los Angeles began life as an inland community. Its original port was at San Pedro, roughly 25 miles to the south. But San Pedro had been cursed by nature. There was no shelter from waves and wind; it was far too shallow to accommodate shipping; and its bottom was mudflats, making construction of heavy piers or breakwaters difficult. Bringing cargo ashore meant transferring it to longboats from ships anchored several miles out at sea, rowing it ashore, and then hauling it by hand across a rocky beach and up a steep slope. The only alternative to this difficult operation was to beach the ship, an even more challenging undertaking. Writing in his 1834 account of his time as a sailor on a ship plying the California coast, Two Years Before the Mast: And Twenty-Four Years After, Charles Henry Dana called San Pedro a “hated… thoroughly detested spot.”

A Quick Summary of the 21st Century So Far

From a reader named Kevin Murphy (alas, not the Kevin Murphy):

The Economist just reported on what you covered in the "The Downside of More Miles Per Gallon" podcast in February. It's looking like Oregon is leading the way in possibly charging per mile: "A bill that would have applied a VMT fee to all new vehicles doing 55mpg and above died in the last legislative session; instead, 5,000 volunteers will join a new VMT scheme in July 2015. They will be charged at 1.5 cents per mile rather than paying the state petrol tax (30 cents per gallon)."

How Does the Value of Driving Differ Across States?

Michael Sivak, a transportation scholar at the University of Michigan whose work has appeared on this blog before, released a new study on inter-state variations in economic activity per unit of driving.  His findings are interesting and reflect significant differences in GDP per distance driven among U.S. states:

In 2011, the highest GDP per distance driven was in the District of Columbia ($30.04/mile, followed by Alaska, New York, Connecticut, and Delaware. The lowest GDP per distance driven was in Mississippi ($2.51/mile), followed by Alabama, New Mexico, Arkansas, and Oklahoma. The median value was $4.66/mile. In comparison, the standard federal reimbursement rate for fixed and variable costs of operating an automobile in 2011 was $0.51/mile.

From 1997 to 2011, the largest absolute increase in GDP per distance driven (with GDP measured in current dollars) was in the District of Columbia (+$14.95/mile), followed by Alaska, New York, Delaware, and Oregon. The smallest increase was in Mississippi(+$0.67/mile), followed by Alabama, Michigan. Florida, and New Mexico.

The Price of Air Travel

The cost of air travel is going up, and airlines are counting on us not to notice.

I’m not talking about airfares, which have actually declined in real terms over the past decade, despite inching up in the past few years. And I don’t mean the ancillary fees to check a bag, check in at the airport, speak to a live agent, or pick your seat, though these, too, are going up. Instead, I’m talking about the cost of delays and schedule disruptions that waste travelers’ time and force them to travel earlier to their destinations or risk missing important meetings and events. 

Air travel in the U.S. is becoming less reliable and less resilient to shocks like isolated storms that can ripple through the system and impact passengers thousands of miles away. If anti-trust authorities approve the merger between American and US Airways, we should expect things to get worse.

An End to the Gas Tax?

When you are a transportation professor, it is your privilege to hear a lot of zany ideas. I have heard about a scheme to create a fleet of intercontinental freight zeppelins (actually, this may not be quite as zany as it sounds). Fifty years after The Jetsons, there are still dogged advocates of flying cars. The most common thing I hear is that we should attack congestion by building monorails down the medians of the freeways. I have no idea how the monorail has bewitched our citizenry (too many trips to Disneyland?), or what precisely is so offensive about the idea of trains that run on two rails, but it’s amazing how beloved the monorail is, so much so that an episode of the Simpsons parodied it. Monorail! Monorail!

Because I love hearing people’s ideas and have no desire to be rude, I engage in an exacting regimen of meditation, yoga, and deep breathing so I can exhibit the equanimity of a lama when hearing goofy ideas. But occasionally something comes up that none of my mantras or self-hypnosis can handle.

To my mind, Governor Bob McDonnell has fashioned one such idea. He is proposing eliminating the state’s gas tax.

We Once Had Self-Driving Cars

A frequent response to the dysfunctions of American air travel is technological: namely, self-driving cars (also see this article). In a self-driving car, you can relax, even sleep, while being driven safely to your destination at 60 mph. We once had such a system. It's called a train network.

Compared to air or car travel, a decent train network is cheaper, more environmentally friendly, and quicker. As an example, I'll compare two door-to-door, city-center-to-city-center journeys.

From Horse Power to Horsepower to Processing Power

Some thinkers make their reputations by focusing on social justice, economic progress, or global sustainability. I took the low road and went for horse manure. It was my article on filth, flies, and putrefying horse carcasses in the 19th century city that brought me to the attention of Dubner and Levitt and, for better or worse, to this site. FYI, the article is here.

If you do peruse it, you’ll see I ended with the hope that technology will bail us out of our transportation problems just like it bailed us out of those caused by the horse. At that time, a deus ex machina descended from the heavens to improbably solve the insoluble. The savior was known as the automobile, and as it went from obscurity to ubiquity in a few decades it banished the working horse—a primary mode of transportation for thousands of years—to oblivion.

There was only one problem with my call for a miraculous technological fix: I did not have the slightest idea what that technology would be.

Mass Transit Hysteria: A New Marketplace Podcast

New York City's subways and buses carry roughly seven million passengers a day, which goes a long way toward explaining why New Yorkers have one of the smallest carbon footprints in the U.S. Doesn't that mean that mass transit is inevitably good for the environment?

Yes, no, and sometimes.

Our latest Freakonomics Radio on Marketplace podcast is called “Mass Transit Hysteria.” (You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen via the media player in the post, or read the transcript below.) 

A Bill of Goods? Assessing the Transportation Legislation

Do you want the good news, or the bad news… or the bad news… or the bad news… 

Okay, in this post let’s start off on the bright side. At a time when the two parties cannot agree on the menu at the Congressional cafeteria, the Republicans and Democrats have found something they can agree on. After three years of debate and nine temporary stopgap extensions, Congress and the President have enacted new transportation authorization legislation. This bill divvies up the gas tax money, plus some miscellaneous revenue from other sources (more on this later), and funds and regulates the federal surface transportation program for the next 27 months. 

In many respects, this is a pretty remarkable achievement. Things could have been worse: on the same day that the transportation agreement was announced, the Supreme Court handed down its ruling on healthcare. Compared to the stark partisanship surrounding that issue, when it came to transportation, John Boehner and Harry Reid held hands around the campfire and sang Kumbaya.

Did Blackberry Outages Cut Abu Dhabi Traffic Accidents by 40 Percent?

A three-day Blackberry service outage last week in parts of the United Arab Emirates once again demonstrates the value of "distracted driving" laws. According to an article in The National, an English-language paper in Abu Dhabi, traffic accidents in Dubai last week fell 20 percent from average rates on the days when BlackBerry users were unable to use its messaging service. In Abu Dhabi, the number of accidents last week fell 40 percent, and there were no fatal accidents. According to the article, on average there is a traffic accident every three minutes in Dubai, and a fatal accident every two days in Abu Dhabi.

Abu Dhabi recently launched a campaign against cell phone use while driving and plans to use electronic evidence in traffic cases.