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Posts Tagged ‘transportation’

Is Uber Making the Taxi Market More Efficient?

The Economist analyzes the microeconomics of Uber’s controversial “surge” pricing model, in which users are charged significantly higher prices during high-demand times:

There is some evidence Uber’s surge pricing is improving taxi markets. The firm says drivers are sensitive to price, so that the temptation to earn more is getting more Uber drivers onto the roads at antisocial hours. In San Francisco the number of private cars for hire has shot up, Uber says. This suggests surge pricing has encouraged the number of taxis to vary with demand, with the market getting bigger during peak hours.

However, the inflexibility of Uber’s matchmaking fee, a fixed 20% of the fare, means that it may fail to optimize the matching of demand and supply. In quiet times, when fares are low, it may work well. Suppose it links lots of potential passengers willing to pay $20 for a journey with drivers happy to travel for $15. A 20% ($4) fee leaves both sides content. But now imagine a Friday night, with punters willing to pay $100 for a ride, and drivers happy to take $90: there should be scope for a deal, but Uber’s $20 fee means such journeys won’t happen.

Why Does Airport Pickup Cost More?

We are arranging a car to take us from our flat to Heathrow Airport early Saturday morning, then return us on Monday evening.  The price going to the airport is ₤28, the price returning is ₤38.  Why the difference?

One possibility is cost-based price discrimination: the driver may have to wait at Heathrow, since the plane and retrieving our baggage may be delayed.  Another is that the prices are set to match the differential set by metered taxis to reflect waiting time for fares at Heathrow (although I would think that competition among car services would eliminate that differential).  I don’t see how this differential could arise from demand-based price discrimination; and neither of the other explanations seems very satisfying.

(HT: DA)

Democracy: Should We Bother?

What could be less controversial than the principle that the public should be consulted about transportation policy? In future posts, I’m going to write about why puppy dogs are despicable and why we should all root for the Miami Heat, but for today I’m going to question this seemingly unquestionable proposition.

There is good reason that one of modern transportation planning’s most fundamental precepts is that the public should be consulted on policies large and small, from constructing a new subway line to changing a humble bus schedule. This is the product of very real abuses, particularly during the creation of the Interstate Highway System. At that time, government had virtual carte blanche to displace residents and bulldoze neighborhoods. For example, for Los Angeles’s Harbor Freeway in the late 1940s, the condemnation resolution for the right-of-way was approved by the court the day after it was filed by the state. The following day, every piece of property along the route was posted with a fifteen day notice to vacate. And less than three weeks after the filing of the condemnation resolution, the Division of Highways began clearing the property.

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.”

Is Your City in the Right Place?

An article on VOX by Guy Michaels and Ferdinand Rauch looks at whether towns in France and Britain are “poorly located.” The authors explain that being in the wrong place — with poor access to world markets and resources, or vulnerability to natural disasters — has dire economic and social consequences. Examining historical evidence from the Roman Empire and the Middle Ages, they found that towns in France stayed put, while those in Britain moved:

Medieval towns in France were much more likely to be located near Roman towns than their British counterparts (Figure 1). These differences in persistence are still visible today: only three of the 20 largest cities in Britain are located near the site of Roman towns, compared to 16 in France. This finding suggests that the British urban network shifted towards newly advantageous locations, while French towns remained in locations, which may have become obsolete.

They also found coastal access to be important:

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.

Has the U.S. Reached "Peak Motorization"?

Peak oil? Probably not. But have we reached “peak motorization” in the U.S.?

Michael Sivak of the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute says the answer is quite possibly yes:

The absolute number of vehicles reached a maximum in 2008. However, it is likely that this was only a temporary maximum and that the decline after 2008 was primarily driven by the current economic downturn that started in 2008. Consequently, with the improving economy and the expected increase in the U.S. population, it is highly likely that (from a long-term perspective) the absolute number of vehicles has not yet peaked.On the other hand, the rates of vehicles per person, licensed driver, and household reached their maxima prior to the onset of the current economic downturn. Consequently, it is likely that the declines in these rates prior to the current economic downturn (i.e., prior to 2008) reflect other societal changes that influence the need for vehicles (e.g., increases in telecommuting and in the use of public transportation). Therefore, the recent maxima in these rates have better chances of being long-term peaks as well.

But Sivak is smart enough to hedge his prediction:

However, because the changes in the rates from 2008 on likely reflect both the relevant societal changes and the current economic downturn, whether the recent maxima in the rates will represent long-term peaks as well will be influenced by the extent to which the relevant societal changes turn out to be permanent.

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.

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.

Can Mass Transit Save the Environment? Right Wing or Left Wing, Here's a Post Everybody Can Hate

A major rationale — perhaps the major rationale — touted by supporters of mass transit is that by reducing our output of greenhouse gases and other pollutants, transit can help save the environment. The proposition seems intuitive and even obvious: by no longer encasing each traveler in thousands of pounds of difficult-to-move metal, surely transit is more energy-efficient. Plenty of analyses prove this. But then again, Aristotle, who was revered as the infallible font of truth for more than 1,000 years, proved that heavier objects fall faster than lighter ones and that women have fewer teeth than men. Might studies that demonstrate transit is greener be similarly wrong?

They might. The reason is that many studies of energy efficiency by mode often make questionable and — depending on the author’s point of view — self-serving assumptions. The main trick is to look at autos with but one passenger and compare them to transit vehicles in which every seat is full. (For example, see this.)

But in the real world, this is emphatically not the case.

A Monopolist's Bridge

More than 25 per cent of trade between the U.S. and Canada goes over the Ambassador Bridge between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario. The bridge, built in 1929, has since 1979 been owned by one individual — Matty Moroun. He also owns duty-free stores and sells gasoline that escapes taxes. The Bridge isn’t quite a monopoly—there is also a tunnel; but the Bridge is more convenient for a lot of traffic.

Michigan has a constitutional amendment on the ballot requiring that any new bridge be approved by voters before state money is spent on it. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Bridge owner is funding a large advertising campaign supporting the amendment. No monopolist likes to have the stream of monopoly profits diminished, which a new bridge would surely do. His political advertising is a smart move for him—a good way to ensure a continuing flow of profits.  Whether it’s good for Michigan, for U.S.-Canada trade and the well-being of the average North American consumer is questionable.  (HT to DJH)

Why My Favorite American Cities Have a Chinatown

Relatives from South Africa were visiting and we got to talking about which cities to visit in America. I shared my list: San Francisco, New York, Boston, Washington, DC, Seattle, and Philadelphia. Each city has a Chinatown. Coincidence? Or maybe the connection is just that I like Chinese food. Indeed, our family has been going to a favorite dim-sum restaurant most every week since moving to Boston seven years ago.

Then the larger connection came to me. Chinatowns were made by Chinese laborers building the railroads (when the laborers had finished this vast public-works program, the Chinese Exclusion Act barred most Chinese from emigration to or citizenship of the United States). Having a Chinatown marks a city as of the railroad era, built up before the wide deployment of the automobile. As Lewis Mumford said, “The right to have access to every building in the city by private motorcar in an age when everyone possesses such a vehicle is actually the right to destroy the city.” Cities with Chinatowns had enough roots to escape carmageddon.

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.

Is a Meat-Eating Cyclist a Contradiction?

In response to James McWilliams‘s still-reverberating post about why more environmentalists don’t promote veganism, a reader named Mary writes:

I have always wondered why environmentalists are so reluctant to promote veganism, but eager to promote alternative transportation. Many residents of the U.S. are currently locked in to their car-dependent lifestyle, with large mortgages in suburbs with no safe sidewalks or bike lanes and inefficient transit. Ditching their car is logistically much more difficult to do than buying beans instead of meat at the grocery store. Currently, the infrastructure for reducing car use is lacking in many communities, though vegan foods, like beans, grains, fruits, and vegetables, are much more easily obtained.

It’s an interesting point. A few related thoughts come to mind:

The Train, The Train! Federal Transportation Legislation: Be Careful What You Wish For

Hi all! Sorry I haven’t been writing much of late; I’ve been dealing with the minor matters of filing a dissertation and finding myself gainful employment. The first step is complete: I get to call myself a doctor now, though it is a source of considerable disappointment to my friends that after almost eight years of study I’m not the kind of doctor who can prescribe them medical marijuana. The second step is complete too: I’ll be joining the faculty at Clemson University in South Carolina as an assistant professor in the fall. I’m thrilled to be going to Clemson as I think very highly of the department, the setting, and winning college football.

Anyway, I’m going to try to get back in the habit of writing more regularly, this time about my dreams for transportation—which are turning out to be nightmares. Like one of those stories where a genie gives you three wishes and every one of them boomerangs. Or even better, a bad episode of Fantasy Island:

Freakonomics Quorum: Can Amtrak Ever Be Profitable?

Amtrak’s ridership and revenue has been steadily increasing over the last 10 years, and 2011 set a new ridership record with 30.2 million passengers, and $1.9 billion in ticket revenue. But, even though it took in $1.42 billion from Congress last year, it still manages to lose $1 billion annually. This is hardly a new development. Amtrak has a long and storied history of functioning at a loss despite government subsidies.

So, as we enter what appears to be a new era (maybe?) of government austerity, it seems worth asking if Amtrak can ever turn a profit without government help. We rounded up some people who pay attention to this issue and asked for their ideas to fix Amtrak, if it can be fixed at all.

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.

Should There Be a Hitchhiking Renaissance?

One of the greatest transportation resources out there is… your backseat. According to a U.S. Department of Transportation report, the average vehicle commuting to and from work has only 1.1 people it. This means that about 80 percent of car capacity goes unused. In a moment when we’re worrying about gas consumption and carbon emissions, this is a lamentable inefficiency. . . .

Dutch Subway Slide: An Exercise in Efficiency

Leave it to the Dutch to turn a playground feature into public-transit innovation. Next time you’re tripping down a set of dirty, crowded subway stairs in your city, just remember that there’s a better way. The Dutch are calling it a “transit accelerator.”

Killer Cars: An Extra 1,000 Pounds Increases Crash Fatalities by 47%

Ever since the SUV craze began in the late 1980s, we’ve all known that heavier vehicles are safer for those driving them, but more dangerous for others on the road. Which is why we all started driving them. Now, in a new working paper, a pair of Berkeley economists have quantified not only the fatality risks of heavier cars for other drivers, but also the costs associated with them. Here’s the abstract:

Heavier vehicles are safer for their own occupants but more hazardous for the occupants of other vehicles. In this paper we estimate the increased probability of fatalities from being hit by a heavier vehicle in a collision. We show that, controlling for own-vehicle weight, being hit by a vehicle that is 1,000 pounds heavier results in a 47% increase in the baseline fatality probability. Estimation results further suggest that the fatality risk is even higher if the striking vehicle is a light truck (SUV, pickup truck, or minivan). We calculate that the value of the external risk generated by the gain in fleet weight since 1989 is approximately 27 cents per gallon of gasoline. We further calculate that the total fatality externality is roughly equivalent to a gas tax of $1.08 per gallon. We consider two policy options for internalizing this external cost: a gas tax and an optimal weight varying mileage tax. Comparing these options, we find that the cost is similar for most vehicles.

In New York City, It Still Pays to Hop the Subway Turnstile

A report by New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority seems to prove that hopping a subway turnstile is worth the risk of getting caught and fined. The MTA estimates that riders entered the subway without paying 18.5 million times in 2009 (an average of 50,684 a day) while the police issued just 120,000 summonses, or 1 for every 154 jumps.
The report figures that a regular turnstile jumper has a chance of getting caught only once every 6 to 13 weeks. At $100 per fine, this works out to be cheaper than a $27 weekly unlimited Metrocard that would cost $162 over six weeks. So the fare-skipper who gets nabbed only once in that period still comes out ahead by $62. And that was in 2009. While the price for a weekly pass has since increased to $29, the cost of the fine has not, so in 2011 it pays even more to hop the turnstile.
From the Daily News:

“This basic street economics might explain observed evasion behaviors,” the authors of the report wrote, arguing stiffer penalties might cut down on scofflaws. “Higher fines or arrests may have better deterrent effects.”

A Solution to Car Accident Rubbernecking: Setting Screens

A few posts ago I wrote a piece about traffic incidents —some of them quite bizarre—that can cause road congestion. Many of these are due to reasonable or at least understandable causes; for example, we need to have road construction, although here in L.A. we wish we didn’t (more about our “Carmageddon” when the results come in.)
But perhaps the most galling and unnecessary source of incident-related congestion is “rubbernecking.” As we all know, terrific jams can be caused even when the wreck(s) is moved out of the traffic lanes, as passing drivers gape at the carnage. It’s been quite a long time since we shared a common ancestor with the vulture, but evidently an evolutionary tie is still there.
Rubbernecking is one of the more interesting cases of moral whipsawing I can think of. All the time we sit in the jam we curse the drivers in front of us for their blood lust. But when it’s our turn at the front of the line… well, just a quick peek.

L.A.'s Carmageddon: Would Building a Train Be Smarter Than Widening the 405?

The “mother of all traffic jams,” in the words of L.A. County supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, is coming to Los Angeles. On the weekend of July 16/17, an 11-mile segment of Interstate 405 will be closed as part of a $1 billion widening project. Reading of the expected traffic jams, and having recently returned from western Europe, where I traveled mostly by train, I was reminded of an earlier traffic nightmare.
This example I learned from Robert Caro’s 1974 masterpiece The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. Robert Moses was New York City’s “master builder” in the mid-20th century, and famously hated public transportation.

FREAK-est Links

This week: Why is our vision getting worse? Could an airline-style loyalty program work for public transportation? Why rich people are bad at reading the emotions of strangers, and a Cornell study uncovers corruption among Amazon’s top reviewers.

Seeing Red: Why L.A. Needs to Keep its Traffic Light Cameras

Thus far I’ve tried to avoid weighing in on the issue of red light cameras (RLCs) in an effort to keep my comments section free of any more angry posts than I normally get, and my email free of complaints from friends and relatives (you know who you are) who’ve been caught in the past. However, my hand has been forced by the Los Angeles City Council’s decision to consider a measure to eliminate our RLC program.
RLCs are not particularly popular. In fact, I have found that many people vehemently hate them. To give an example, the Chicago Tribune conducted a poll in 2009 showing that 53 percent of voters supported the cameras, while 41 percent opposed them. These percentages basically flipped when voters were asked if they wanted RLCs in their own neighborhood. This is a bit reminiscent of Monty Python’s proposal to “tax foreigners living abroad.”

What Drives Obesity? An Economist Takedown of The Economist

Is higher obesity due to the rise in driving? Perhaps. It’s an intriguing hypothesis. But our friends at The Economist should know better than to report nonsensical correlations. Here’s the evidence they cite (drawn from this entirely unconvincing research paper published in Transport Policy):

Looks impressive, right? (Well, apart from putting the explanatory variable on the vertical axis.) But before concluding that there’s anything here, let’s try a different variable, instead—my age:

The Dutch Rail System's Strange Peak-Load Pricing

I bought a round-trip ticket for a short train trip in the Netherlands, paying full price. Later I asked a colleague if there are discounts of any kind. Yes, she said, as long as you travel after 9 a.m. I assume this illustrates peak-load pricing, so I asked about traveling in the evening rush hour. It turns out the discount is good any time after 9 a.m.—there is no peak-load pricing for evening rush.

Where on Earth Will All the Cars Go?

Evidence indicates that as national wealth rises, so does auto ownership. So what is going to happen when those in poor nations start buying cars at rich world levels? Can the world afford to have every Chinese and Indian driving a car?