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?