Visualizing the BART Labor Dispute

Labor disputes are complicated, and the BART situation is no different. Negotiations resumed this week after the cooling off period called for by the governor of California as a result of the July strikes.

To help get up to speed, check out the data visualizations made by the Bay Area d3 User Group in conjunction with the UC Berkeley VUDLab.  They have a round up of news articles, open data, and open source code, as well as links to all the authors’ Twitter profiles.

The infographics address several key questions relevant to the debate, including how much BART employees earn, who rides BART and where, and the cost of living for BART employees.



More here.

Micro-Institutions Everywhere: Shipping Containers

Bridge in Wuppertal, Germany

Bridge in Wuppertal, Germany

Dollar bills have several features that make them ideal for modern commerce. They are impartial, lightweight, and memoryless. You can use them to buy a gun or a granola bar, to pay a drug dealer or a dry cleaner. As a vehicle for trade, it does not get much better.

Suppose the dollar bill had a brother, a younger but larger relative whose own contributions similarly smoothed the pathways of globalization. That brother would be the shipping container:

Think of the shipping container as the Internet of things. Just as your email is disassembled into discrete bundles of data the minute you hit send, then re-assembled in your recipient’s inbox later, the uniform, ubiquitous boxes are designed to be interchangeable, their contents irrelevant.

Once they enter the stream of global shipping, the boxes are shifted and routed by sophisticated computer systems that determine their arrangement on board and plot the most efficient route to get them from point to point. The exact placement of each box is a critical part of the equation: Ships make many stops, and a box scheduled to be unloaded late in the journey can’t be placed above one slated for offloading early. Imagine a block of 14,000 interlocked Lego bricks—now imagine trying to pull one out from the middle.

That’s Andrew Curry in the latest edition of Nautilus, and the whole article is worth a read.

More on Food Truck Regulation

Popular Durham-area food truck Chirba Chirba serves dumplings. Photo via livewell.

Popular Durham-area food truck Chirba Chirba serves dumplings. Photo via livewell.

More on the plight of food truck operators in NYC, from the Times:

There are numerous (and sometimes conflicting) regulations required by the departments of Health, Sanitation, Transportation and Consumer Affairs. These rules are enforced, with varying consistency, by the New York Police Department. As a result, according to City Councilman Dan Garodnick, it’s nearly impossible (even if you fill out the right paperwork) to operate a truck without breaking some law. Trucks can’t sell food if they’re parked in a metered space . . . or if they’re within 200 feet of a school . . . or within 500 feet of a public market . . . and so on.

Enforcement is erratic. Trucks in Chelsea are rarely bothered, Nafziger said. In Midtown South, where I work and can attest to the desperate need for more lunch options, the N.Y.P.D. has a dedicated team of vendor-busting cops. “One month, we get no tickets,” Thomas DeGeest, the founder of Wafels & Dinges, a popular mobile-food businesses that sells waffles and things, told me. “The next month, we get tickets every day.” DeGeest had two trucks and five carts when he decided he couldn’t keep investing in a business that was so vulnerable to overzealous cops or city bureaucracy. Instead, DeGeest reluctantly decided to open a regular old stationary restaurant.

We’ve discussed food truck regulations and the competition between vendors before. There is certainly a place for regulation, but inconsistent and seemingly arbitrary enforcement undermines the goal of clarifying expectations between all parties.

Risk, Overreaction, and Control

11-M_El_How many people died because of the September 11 attacks? The answer depends on what you are trying to measure. The official estimate is around 3,000 deaths as a direct result of hijacked aircraft and at the World Trade Center, Pentagon, and in Pennsylvania. Those attacks were tragic, but the effect was compounded by overreaction to terrorism. Specifically, enough Americans substituted driving for flying in the remaining months of 2001 to cause 350 additional deaths from accidents.

David Myers was the first to raise this possibility in a December, 2001, essay. In 2004, Gerd Gigerenzer collected data and estimated the 350 deaths figure, resulting from what he called “dread risk”:

People tend to fear dread risks, that is, low-probability, high-consequence events, such as the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001. If Americans avoided the dread risk of flying after the attack and instead drove some of the unflown miles, one would expect an increase in traffic fatalities. This hypothesis was tested by analyzing data from the U.S. Department of Transportation for the 3 months following September 11. The analysis suggests that the number of Americans who lost their lives on the road by avoiding the risk of flying was higher than the total number of passengers killed on the four fatal flights. I conclude that informing the public about psychological research concerning dread risks could possibly save lives.

Does the same effect carry over to other countries and attacks? Alejandro López-Rousseau looked at how Spaniards responded to the March 11, 2004, train bombings in Madrid. He found that activity across all forms of transportation decreased–travelers did not substitute driving for riding the train.

What could explain these differences? One could be that Americans are less willing to forego travel than Spaniards. Perhaps more travel is for business reasons and cannot be delayed. Another possibility is that Spanish citizens are more accustomed to terrorist attacks and understand that substituting driving is more risky than continuing to take the train. There are many other differences that we have not considered here–the magnitude of the two attacks, feelings of being “in control” while driving, varying cultural attitudes.

This post is simply meant to make three points. First, reactions to terrorism can cause additional deaths if relative risks are not taken into account. Cultures also respond to terrorism in different ways, perhaps depending on their previous exposure to violent extremism. Finally, the task of explaining differences is far more difficult than establishing patterns of facts.

(For more on the final point check out Explaining Social Behavior: More Nuts and Bolts for the Social Sciences, which motivated this post.)

Dollar Bills and US State Borders

A number of proposals (not all serious) have been floating around lately to redraw the borders of the US. According to this list nearly every US state has groups wanting to partition it somehow. One idea was fifty states with equal population. Another is to redraw borders based on the actual communities that exist–in this case measured by how dollar bills travel:


Dirk Brockmann, a physicist, used information about dollar bill travel patterns from to track the movement of currency. He then used that information to re-allocate the US into states based on “effective communities.” Specifically, he drew borders where dollar bills are least likely to cross.

There are a few interesting borders that jump out. Both Pennsylvania and Missouri are divided into eastern and western chunks. Major metropolitan areas that currently cross several state borders (eg Chicago) have their own state in Brockmann’s map. Notice also that the northernmost part of California is lumped together with Oregon and Washington–not unlike the proposed State of Jefferson. Dollar bills do not appear to cross the Red River from Texas to Oklahoma very often.

One component that would be interesting to add to this is how dollar bills travel internationally. US currency is frequently used in other (especially developing) countries so it would be neat to see how a dollar bill moves around once it’s outside of the US. Does it stay in the first non-US country it reaches, or move around more from there? This data could also be incorporated into a project like Brockmann’s: some communities near international borders might trade with neighboring countries more than they do other parts of their own.

Reducing the Hidden Costs of Urban Living

USC graduate student Jeremy Fuller put it eloquently when he said, “Traffic really just defines your possibilities at any given time.” When traveling from one side of a large metro area to another in the US, a single individual has very little control over her travel time. You can try to pick a less congested time of day or select from a few alternate routes but if the city is gridlocked you are out of luck.

According to the most recent Annual Urban Mobility Report, annual hours wasted in traffic in the largest metro areas of the US increased by 33 hours per year between 1982 and 2012 (from 19 to 52). That means every year Americans in the largest cities are wasting one more hour of their life in traffic. There are 15 of these areas with over 3 million residents each, so even small differences in time wasted add up. The worst offender is the DC area at 67 wasted hours per driver per year.

The Los Angeles area is notorious for its traffic, but the situation is improving. Although the 2011 figure of 61 hours per driver-year is still high, it is down from 78 hours in 2005.  Part of the improvement comes from synchronizing the city’s 4,500 traffic signals over the 469 square-mile metro area:

The system uses magnetic sensors in the road that measure the flow of traffic, hundreds of cameras and a centralized computer system that makes constant adjustments to keep cars moving as smoothly as possible. The city’s Transportation Department says the average speed of traffic across the city is 16 percent faster under the system, with delays at major intersections down 12 percent.

Without synchronization, it takes an average of 20 minutes to drive five miles on Los Angeles streets; with synchronization, it has fallen to 17.2 minutes, the city says. And the average speed on the city’s streets is now 17.3 miles per hour, up from 15 m.p.h. without synchronized lights.

The natural question to ask is, “but then what?” There could be second-order effects: as traffic time is reduced, more commuters could switch to driving. And as the city continues to grow there will be more cars on the road. For now, though, this represents a major improvement that cuts down on one of the main hidden costs in urban life.

Read more about how other major cities are fighting traffic problems here. You may also be interested in traffic signals as a metaphor for property rights or the safety of traffic circles.

The Roman Internet


Schematic of the Roman internet, er, road network

Schematic of the Roman internet, er, road network

Terence Eden asks why the Romans didn’t invent the internet:

What I find interesting is that there was nothing fundamentally to stop the Romans – or any other ancient civilization – from creating such a network. The Greeks experimented with it in 4BCE but it seems it never really caught on. Tower building is easy, as is flag waving or other mechanical forms of signalling. Their technology was certainly capable of building a proto-Internet. That would have had some profound changes to our history.

It’s an interesting counterfactual, but I think the better answer is that the Romans did invent the internet in a manner of speaking. The Roman road network was an incredible innovation for its time. Thanks to the ORBIS project at Stanford, we can gain a better appreciation for how significantly Roman roads reduced the cost and time required to travel. Robert Gonzalez describes how many variables you can manipulate in the simulations:

Tell us, would you like to travel to Rome by road, river or open sea? Would you stick to the coasts or set a course through the mainland? During which month would you journey? Would you opt for the fastest route (bearing in mind that the shortest course does not always translate to the quickest passage) or the cheapest? Speaking of expenses, how much would this journey cost you, anyway? (Please give your answer in denarii.)

You can try the interactive maps for yourself here.

Micro-Institutions Everywhere: Food Truck Wars

“Following all the regulatory constraints that are currently enforced at this moment, there really is not any place for a food truck to park,” says David Weber. He’s the other owner of the Rickshaw Dumpling, and he just wrote the Food Truck Handbook.

Food vendors avert a full out war through an informal code of conduct. You respect the guy who got there first. If you’re a jerk, the other guy can make your day miserable. A hot dog cart, say, can block your truck window and keep you from doing any business at all.

“We’ve gone to spots before,” Lao says, “where the falafel guys and the shish kebab guys will come up and say, ‘What’s your menu? Do you sell chicken? … You can’t sell chicken on this block. I’m the chicken guy on 52nd St.’”

Source: Planet Money.

Micro-Institutions Everywhere: Walking Paths

I was delighted to discover an example of micro-institutions at work this week right in my own backyard, er, campus. Several of my classes have been held in the Social Psychology building on Duke’s West Campus. Most traffic to this building comes from the nearby Perkins library, to the southwest.

None of the sidewalks allows for the most direct route, which leads from an outdoor stairway diagonally across a small lawn. None until now, that is. This week I observed the scene in the photo: a sidewalk being put in exactly the same place as the well-worn footpath from pedestrians observing the triangle inequality. (Please forgive the poor quality of the picture.) The new sidewalk is a perfect example of a central planner responding to the emergent order of individual actions, rather than resisting it. Micro-institutions really work.

Traffic and Property Rights

This blog has recently discussed jaywalking, and has covered traffic signals as both metaphor and fact numerous times (here and here, for example). But Matt Yglesias does not read this blog, so he writes:

A political movement genuinely focused on freeing people from the coercive authority of the state would spend a ton of time tackling the everyday tyranny of traffic signals, lane striping, jaywalking laws, and the dozens of other similar regulations that impinge upon the day-to-day lives of hundreds of millions of law-abiding American citizens.

To which Will Wilkinson responds with this from David Schmidtz:

Consider that the whole point of fences, and of rights, is to get in the way. Or to use a different metaphor: rights are like traffic lights. A mere liberty is a green light. A full-blooded right is a green light combined with a correlative red light. Some rules are better than others at unobtrusively enabling people to get on with their business. Traffic lights facilitate traffic movement not so much by turning green as by turning red. Without traffic lights, we all in effect have a green light, and at some point traffic increases to a point where the result is gridlock. By contrast, a system in which we take turns facing red and green lights is a system that keeps us out of each other’s way. Of course, the system itself gets in the way when it presents us with a red light, but almost all of us gain in terms of our overall ability to get where we want to go, because we develop mutual expectations that enable us to get where we want to go more peacefully and more expeditiously….

Property rights are, among other things, red lights that tell you when the right to use the intersection belongs to someone else. Red lights can be frustrating, especially as a community becomes more crowded, but the game they create is not zero-sum. When the system works, nearly all of us get where we are going more quickly, safely, and predictably than we otherwise would, in virtue of having been able to coordinate on a system that enables us to know what to expect from each other.

This idea of rights as traffic signals is not one that I have considered before, but I will be thinking more about it in future micro-institutions posts. By the way, I am not doing full justice to the arguments of Schmidtz, Wilkinson, or Yglesias in this post; I am mainly trying to make the connection between their ideas and similar things that I have written as a jumping off point for future conversations.