Freight rail destruction of wildlife and ill-advised political metaphors

Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele said with regard to health care reform that he’s “the cow on the tracks. You’re gonna have to stop that train to get this cow off the track to move forward.”

Um, yeah. That sometimes happens if you see the cow on the tracks with enough time to stop the train. Otherwise, these types of collisions are always rather one-sided, and not generally in favor of the cow.

See that V-shaped object on the front of this engine? This photo is a rather pronounced version of the object–called, in fact, a cow-catcher–which go on the front of engines specifically to deflect objects to one side or another of the track.

Freight rail destruction of wildlife is a serious issue, just like highway destruction of wildlife. This summary and bibliography give a nice introduction to the problem.


Violence in Lahore and the Urban-ness of Terrorism

The terrorist strike in Lahore is not getting as a much news time as it needs. Along with the violence that has hit Karachi, Peshawar, Quetta, and Rawalpindi, it suggests a geographic spread to the Taliban’s activities and a set of dominoes falling. I am not well-schooled enough in international relations to really understand what is going on here, but it’s worrying both for its cost in human life and what it portends for the future of Pakistan.

In my class on the Urban Context, I ask students to explain whether (or not) terrorism is a uniquely urban phenomenon. One of the things that strikes me about many terrorists (not all) is that they use city and country in particular ways. Bonnie and Clyde*, though ostensibly not political murderers, were discussed in the media as rural bandits who stole from city fatcats and took down the man’s police lackeys. The Weather Underground used the anonymity of the city to hide in plain sight. Timothy McVeigh selected an urban location to avenge what he considered to be a rural wrong. The city becomes the site of the enlarged state; it is also the platform for major social and cultural change. As such, it’s a target for those who want radical social change, either through the ostensible opposing of it (let’s go back to what we imagine Islam was in the 17th century) and those who wish to speed it up.

*Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow.


Air quality, congestion, and pricing

One of my former students posted this story from the Wall Street Journal to Facebook yesterday. ARGH. Does the WSJ do no research in its reporting any more? So a time delay will shift drivers to transit but a charge for driving wouldn’t? Are WSJ reporters not required to understand basic econ anymore?

Congestion can be either good or bad for air quality depending on the geographic distribution of alternatives, the fleet, and the context into which the emissions enter. Congestion charging can in theory price trips onto the road under hypercongestion (the famous backward-bending demand curve), and thus may allow for greater VMT. But this is not true even in theory if the charging scheme is priced for VMT reduction or rationing rather than optimizing flow–those are different things, and the New York pricing plan was zone-based, so it most likely would have eliminated trips, not increased them! Higher throughput might affect emissions via flow optimization, but it is not apparent from either monitors or lab experiments that idling among a smaller number of cars/trips is objectively better for air quality than fast throughput from a larger number of cars/trips (and there may be a substitution effect in the traveling fleet that most people think is an air quality benefit; or there may be a freight effect which would not produce benefits [1]; we don’t know). Different types of emissions also vary with engine cycle, so it may be wash in total but a trade in emissions type.

Studies prior to the implementation of London’s cordon toll predicted fairly large reductions in emissions [2]. After the charge’s implementation, monitors throughout the metro area demonstrated statistically significant (though small in absolute terms) and progressively distributed improvements in pollutant concentrations [3,4]. Now, it’s not likely that we can attribute all of that change to the cordon toll, as accompanying the toll were rapid increases in bus supply (so much so that train trips also went down concurrently following the implementation of the cordon toll; I suspect that congested trains were traded for less-congested buses for short trips, particularly after the transit bombings in July of 2005).

Traffic calming, transit-oriented, density-based efforts in Paris—without the concomitant tolling efforts that London put down—have been found to increase emissions substantially, so New York may not be doing itself any favors with unpriced congestion [5]. Concentrations in some congested areas, like San Francisco, have not been improving as quickly as in other places. It may be that these simply reflect that when air quality is generally good in high-growth areas, reductions occur marginally more slowly than in places where concentrations are comparatively high. (IOW, it’s hard to improve on good.) However, it can also be that worsening congestion has caused higher emissions and that is being reflected in some regional monitors.

Some of the smartest transportation people in the world are at New York universities, but why would we actually CALL THEM to get some ideas for this WSJ peice? For most of these people, it wouldn’t even a long-distance phone call for the WSJ reporter. See? Look at this list! This is a dream team of people to ask rather than just talking out of your backside. BAD WSJ.

But then, as my friend Chris Redfearn once noted, discussions like this require people to keep more than one idea in their heads at once. If we are throwing around the “dubious” term, congestion on transit–and this exists virtually everywhere in the world that isn’t in the US–is most definitely NOT good for the environment: see Mexico City, see virtually every Asian city over 10 million people, and the many scooter engines on the road rather than transit trips.

[1] Marr, L. C. and R. A. Harley. 2002. Modeling the effect of weekday-weekend differences in motor vehicle
emissions on photochemical air pollution in central california. Environmental Science and Technology, 36:4099–4106.

[2] Beevers, SD, Carslaw DC. The impact of congestion charging on vehicle emissions in London. Atmospheric Environment. 2005 Jan ;39(1):1-5.

[3] Atkinson R, Barratt B, Armstrong B, Anderson H, Beevers S, Mudway I, et al. The impact of the Congestion Charging Scheme on ambient air pollution concentrations in London [Internet]. Atmospheric Environment. In Press, Accepted.

[4] C, Beevers S, Armstrong B, Kelly F, Wilkinson P. Air pollution and mortality benefits of the London Congestion Charge: spatial and socioeconomic inequalities. Occup Environ Med. 2008 Sep 1;65(9):620-627.

[5] Bouf D, Hensher DA. The dark side of making transit irresistible: The example of France. Transport Policy. 2007 Nov;14(6):523-532.


Woo Woo Elinor Ostrom!

Elinor Ostrom has been awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics along with Oliver Williamson.

Dr. Ostrom is the first female recipient of the prize, and perhaps even more exciting, is an institutional scholar who studied the commons. She’s an absolute giant in the field of environmental governance. It’s an inspired choice, one that suggests the committee is beginning to recognize the importance of interdisciplinary work and ideas on economics.
Beyond that, she’s a super nice lady.

This has been the first time I have smiled in weeks! We’re all supposed to pretend we’re all equal now, or else all the guys around me will start citing Lifetime Network and how tough they have it, but the academic world is highly male-dominated even though our professions–civil engineering, urban planning–have changed. I have dozens of great male role models around me, and I appreciate them all. But I have only a handful of women. Maybe the scarcity shouldn’t make a difference, but it does. Research and writing are lonely endeavors, and I can’t even begin to describe how isolating and alienating the tenure process is. You need to be able to know that people like you can succeed in the game. At least I have always needed that.

So why is Ostrom’s work so important to cities? I’m glad you asked. Central to Ostrom’s work are exemplars where “commons” are governed successfully (and less so) among users. Garret Hardin, an influential ecologist who passed away in 2003, first brought the commons to our attention through a paper in Science, whereby he noted that rational individuals have an incentive to over-use the commons in the absence of clearly defined property rights [1]. Ostrom’s work studied the role of institutions and agreements in adjudicating the usage of the commons, so that destruction of common pool resources was not inevitable nor necessarily the purview of individual property rights alone, though I would argue many of the factors she highlighted in her work amount to the creation of jointly held property rights [2]. In other words, her work addresses the fundamental question of the city: that is, how do we get along together, how do we make decisions–good ones–about the shared goods (and environments) that affect large groups of people where property rights are perhaps fuzzy.

Marginal Revolution has a discussion up. The comments leave quite a bit to be desired as they smell of sour grapes, but as with men and Lifetime movies, it’s not often that I get to hear economists, the veritable jewels within the crown of the social sciences and usually all-too-confident in their entitlement to act as consultants to power, fret about whether their status is slipping. IT’S ONE PRIZE, PEOPLE, CHILLAX WOULD YA?

**My apologies to Oliver Williamson, but he’s a bit of a no-brainer here and I suspect his reputation can withstand being given short shrift in an obscure planner’s blog.

[1] Hardin, G. (1968). Tragedy of the Commons. Science, 162, 1243-1248.

[2] Ostrom, E. (1990). Governing the commons: The evolution of institutions for collective action. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Things that scare me, in no way related to cities

1. Crocodiles. Eek.

2. Junior high English teachers. This is just common sense.

3. Dolls. They have eyes, they don’t blink. Creepy.

4. Aliens. Star Trek has never satisfactorily explained what all this probing was about, and I don’t believe any of that pre-Prime-Directive ranny-gazzoo.

5. Snakes, spiders and rats. There is a reason that vampires don’t run with guinea pigs and koala bears.

6. Sharks. If you’ve ever watched Spring Break Shark Attack, either the original or the sequel, or the discovery channel, you just plain know: DON’T GO INTO THE WATER.

7. Getting floss stuck in my teeth. What if it never comes out?

8. Fish hooks. They may seem like inert metal barbs, but they are really sitting there, plotting against my eyeballs. I just know it.

9. People with velociraptor sternums. Where do those come from? Madonna, whom I admire as a business woman, is looking way too much like an East German weight lifter these days for comfort.

10. Everybody on my tenure committee, people who used to be friends and colleagues and mentors, and are now people behind closed doors and closed conversations.

11. My own monkey brain. The more I don’t think about tenure and how much it is bothering me, the more the anxiety comes out in odd, unpredictable ways.

I’m going to go back to coding.