Hilter rants about Carmageddon

For reasons beyond me, the New York Times and other national news outlets appear to be interested in Carmageddon, which is what we here Los Angelenos have dubbed the plan to close the 405 (aka the San Diego) freeway for two days.

This is the part of the 405 that is being closed, lest you think all the hysteria is somehow justified:

Voila Capture85

But then, west LA is the center of the world.

The Fifth District is represented by County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. Before anybody snorts that county politics are uninteresting, let me point out that County Supervisors in Los Angeles County determine services and policy for over 9 million people–more than many US governors. Yaroslavsky’s office created a list of 53 things families can do to avoid the mishagosh.

Finally,here’s a little mashup worth watching, sent to me by one of my brilliant colleagues (who shall go unnamed due to the massive use of the F-word here; be warned). It’s Hitler’s staff breaking the news that the 405 is going to be closed:

LA Will Lead in Electric Vehicle Sales?

UCLA’s Luskin Center for Innovation has a nice report out that is getting some press: LA is expected to be a leader in electric vehicle sales.

Here’s a quote from the KCET story:

What does that mean in actual numbers? In 2015, a 9% market share of new car sales is estimated to be 30,000, with a total of some 230,000 purchased through 2020. Those numbers sharply contrast sales this year. “The analysis predicts just over 2,000 electric vehicles will be sold in Los Angeles in 2011,” explained Luskin Center director J.R. DeShazo. “This number is due to the limited supply of electric vehicles; even if more residents are inclined to purchase them, it just isn’t possible right now.”

I’m sure the Luskin folks are right about LA being an early adoption area, but the long-term trends for energy costs in California are not cheap for any energy supply, electricity included. I wish I knew more about the grid in California, but I wonder how the infrastructure is really going to manage all the charging, even if it is happening off-peak. But I may be completely wrong here–I need to learn more about the basics of energy production in the state.

As one of my brilliant PhD students says, with an EV you are polluting residents of nearby states. Of course, you’re doing the same with your ICE vehicle (emissions can transport across large geographies).

It will be interesting to see how all this plays out.

In which epidemiologists tell us what we already knew

I’m on the editorial board of Transportation Research Part A, and it’s an excellent journal by any measure. But one article this morning seemed so promising, and then rather failed to deliver:

Graham-Rowe, E., Skippon, S., Gardner, B. & Abraham, C., 2011, Can we reduce car use and, if so, how? A review of available evidence, Transportation Research Part A: Policy and Practice.

Great, right? Another review, and we probably needed another review after this inappropriately optimistic one appeared in JAPA last year:

Ewing, R. & Cervero, R., 2010, Travel and the built environment, Journal of the American Planning Association, 76(3).

The latter review was problematic because it summarized the evidence and then concluded “Yes, well, all the empirical evidence shows small effect and insignificant effect sizes, but we still think our interventions work under the right conditions.”

There comes a point where you have to wonder if those right conditions are feasible if the research can’t find them time and time again.

However, Graham-Rowe sort studies according to quality, stating what’s obvious to everybody: there aren’t enough randomized trials in applied social science research.

Gee, ya think?

There’s a reason why the high quality studies are looking at program evaluations and why the cross-sectional studies look at before and after projects. Unlike medical and psychological research, researchers in my world don’t get to randomly select controls for anything other than programs, and often not even then because there are practical problems with employers or city governments allowing some employees or residents–but not others–to participate in a program that carries a benefit, like being paid not to drive.

So undeniably, we’d have better research if I could select random samples and controls for selected interventions, use our godlike hands to pick drivers up by their heads, place them in case-control groups according to intervention versus non-intervention environments or programs, and make them live there/participate as long as we wanted them to. Unfortunately, doing that sort of thing in societies where human beings have freedom of movement and self determination tends to be frowned on.

The takeaway–AGAIN–is that self-selection and endogeniety go hand and hand. Gargh.

I don’t see a path out of this cycle of research-critique. We’ve hit a stalemate. People who are advocates of particular position–that mixed land uses and transit supply reduce auto use–are like Fox Mulder: “I want to believe.”

Social scientists can try to tinker on the margins of what we have, with instrumental variables and various econometric contraptions strapped on to different datasets, but there’s no way around the residential self-selection problems here.

We can publish critique after critique, and perhaps that’s useful, but I don’t see how. We know where we are with this research–and we also know that planning, policy, and forecasts are thundering ahead with the “I want to believe” attitude. The alternatives to believing aren’t particularly attractive, either.

Davis and Kahn on the effects of used vehicle imports on emissions

Davis, Lucas and Matthew Kahn. 2010. International trade in used vehicles: The environmental consquences of NAFTA. Economic Policy. 58-82.

Davis and Kahn set up a nice little set of models to help us understand what has likely happened in the durable goods market for vehicles. In comparatively higher income countries, used durables like cars are likely to get traded out to lower income countries–here, the US and Mexico. And since older durables emit more than new cars, they find that this robust trade in used vehicles increases lifetime emissions as Mexico consumers substitute away from transit use to used car consumption and those cars stay in use longer. An excellent paper: I highly encourage you to go read (and to spring for membership in the American Economic Association: you get lots of good journals and a calendar with economist centerfolds! One of my happiest investments this year.)

A couple of weak points: they say at the beginning that they establish that trade makes emissions go up in both countries. No, they actually show that emissions go down in the US but up in Mexico, and the increases in Mexico outstrip the reductions in the US. I don’t love the way they calculate emissions: they have to make some assumptions about the distribution of vehicle miles of travel, and I suspect that it is possible, given their analysis, that trade make makes VMT go up in both countries. Moreover, they note that costs of repairs are low in Mexico, yet they really don’t calculate how repairs can significantly improve engine performance. A car isn’t as good as new, but that doesn’t mean it stays a clunker after it’s traded. This may be particularly true depending on where the used car ends up in Mexico: Mexico City has different incentives and regulations for fixing up a car than other parts of the country.

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The Future of The Car in the Financial Times

The US carmaker and its Chinese partner SAIC unveiled in March their vision of a car for 2030: a self-driving, networked bubble-car run on electric power, and small enough to park in your living room. It was called EN-V (for Electric Networked Vehicle) and came in three variants with Chinese names: Xiao (“laugh”), Jiao (“pride”) and Miao (“magic”)

link: FT.com / Reports – From hybrids to self-driving vehicles

It’s worth checking out the whole series about they think the future of the car will be, particularly for very small cars, indeed. If you click the graphic, you get the full effect of how important Asian markets are going to be–even with transit.

Some of the things they are discussing are very interesting indeed. I just imagine my very tall colleague driving around in a bubble car!

Does transit get too little funding?

One of the common arguments I hear is that transit is underfunded. Now, this is a subjective question. For those who believe that having transit is absolutely vital to cities, no amount would be enough. So that’s not the point.

The other argument that I hear is that we spend too much on highways rather than transit. Again, subjective. There’s no way to suss this question easily enough for a blog post.

But we can take a look at what people seem to believe is a disparity in funding.

This is the graphic you are most likely to see when we discuss differences between highway and transit funding:

Ok, so of the total, highways get about 55 to 60 percent and transit gets 17 percent on average over the time period, but by the end of the time period, transit’s share has risen to about 20 percent and highways has gone to about 54 percent.

So that’s a pretty big difference in funding. But when you factor in the passenger miles served, the calculus changes. In the following graphic, I have assigned 100 percent of the spending on highways to passenger cars–a major overstatement, but it serves the point. It’s an overstatement because highways also serve trucks (a big deal), motorcycles and some transit (less of a big deal.)

My transit advocate friends will patronize me at this point and lecture me about how I’m not factoring in the external costs of the cars–and that’s true.

But I am not sure that external costs are relevant to expenditure fairness. Whether we factor in external costs or not is relevant to tax policy, for sure, but it’s probably not relevant to the budget equity arguments often made. It’s one thing to talk about optimum investment, which would require marginal social cost: it’s another to try to figure out if transit exists is “David” to auto’s “Goliath”.

Here, we’re trying to figure out if transit riders are getting the shaft. Are they getting the shaft (the transit advocate side)? Or are they rolling in dough they don’t need (the Reason foundation argument)?

This is one of the few times I actually might believe the apples and oranges arguments about comparing. Transit is in a building stage, but highways, for the most part, are in the maintenance phase. We could argue ourselves in circles: to reach investment parity, we’d need to double the transit numbers per passenger mile, etc, etc.

I just don’t know what I think. I need to fiddle with the numbers more.

All these data are from BTS, btw.

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David King on Richard Florida’s leaps from logic

Richard Florida, having always been a little light on the “how to use data” side, has really drunk the New Urbanist Kool-Aid here late, and it’s been hard to sit through. One of his latest “light on evidence, heavy on major claims” forays explains to us in the Atlantic how commuting is, basically as bad for us as smoking or obesity. Here’s a quote:

Commuting is a health and psychological hazard, not to mention the carnage and wasted time on our over-clogged roads. It’s time to put commuting right beside smoking and obesity on the list of priorities for improving the health and well-being of Americans.

Are you kidding me? My walk to USC takes me an hour. The car trip takes me 15 minutes. I’m pretty sure that the hour is the healthiest part of my day, and that commute time has little to do with health. I get that when Florida says “commuting” he’s thinking car, but he’s addled up the theorized relationship between commuting time and health in so many ways my eyes are crossed.

I don’t have the energy to go into everything that is wrong with his claims, but fortunately David King from Columbia did take some time out to break down the problems. Take a look.

Here’s a couple of favorite quotes from King:

A more inconvenient truth for Florida is that the extreme commuters–those with commutes over 90 minutes–are most likely to get to work by commuter train. Advocates for rail transit to reduce commuting costs should be careful what they wish for. People driving to work alone have the shortest commutes, and commutes are growing most in suburb-to-suburb travel which are poorly served by any transit but rail in particular. The megaregions that Florida and others hold so dearly are also polycentric regions with employment centers spread out all over the place.

link: Getting from here to there: Commuting is not bad for you

Commutes by transit are, on average, longer than in duration than car commutes, by any data set you use. So…I guess since according to the commutes are bad logic, transit commutes are so long that transit is actually bad for health. Sweet cracker sandwich. Maybe transit commuters spend so much time waiting for transfers they can’t go to the gym?

One point to note: King suggests that about half of US commuters commute less than 20 minutes. One thing he leaves out: that figure has remained remarkably stable over the years that we have been collecting data on commutes. My speculation is that if we could get transit commutes down to 20 minutes they would be much more competitive with cars (but they would also be competing with bicycles, too); I suspect that many people just have travel budgets, and over time people adjust their residential locations according to their preferred access locations–not necessarily the work location. I also suspect that many of the very long commutes we see in the data are people who don’t commute every day but still report their commute length, or are people in a “change mode”–they are in the process of changing jobs or lifestyles, and they are putting with a longer commute for constrained time period until the “right time to move” comes up. Leases are sticky, and so is house buying and selling. Cross-sectional data doesn’t describe these very well.

Another point, from commuting in America II:

Contrary to what some might expect, it is the smaller metropolitan areas that show strong center city dominance. In areas below 100,000 population, The internal center city flows alone are about half of all flows, but drop to below 24% at the highest metro size levels

King highlights this but doesn’t go the full way of critiquing the assumption: why anybody wouldn’t expect polycentricity to grow with region size is beyond me. It’s what urban economics would teach us to expect as a land market response to higher downtown costs.

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