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.

Why Does Manhattan Have the Best Shrimp?

Fulton Fish Market in New York City

Fulton Fish Market in New York City

I’ll ask the question in the same form that I originally heard it: “Why does Manhattan have the best shrimp?”* It makes sense why Portland (Maine) or Boston would have great lobster–the shellfish are harvested nearby. But even though shrimping locations are far from New York City, Manhattan restaurants can regularly get high-quality, plump shrimp. Likewise for juicy red apples and other nice produce–all from many kilometers or even continents away. If the “buy local” movement is all its cracked up to be, shouldn’t the location where these items are harvested be the best spot to purchase them rather than the concrete jungle?

The answer involves transportation costs. Put yourself in the shoes of a Central American farmer for a moment. You have harvested a bumper crop of avocados or bananas, or another perishable crop. In your local marketplace you can sell the produce for just the cost of gas for a large truck. However, so can every other farmer in the local growing area. That means your local market has a lot of bananas and avocados, which drives down the price. The same item you could sell for 10 cents near home might go for $0.50 to $1.00 in a large US city.**

Having decided to ship your goods to the States, you have to decide which ones to sell. Do you want to send the so-so items that will sell in the low end of the price range above? It would still be better than what you can get at home, but it would barely cover the additional shipping costs. Keep in mind that the cost to ship it won’t depend on the quality of the product. It costs the same to send a box of rotting bananas as it does to send the world’s greatest bananas. This is why it makes sense to send the best: since the costs of shipping are fixed, you might as well ship the product where you’ll make the greatest profit.

In economics this is known as the Alchian-Allen theorem,*** which Wikipedia summarizes as:

It states that when the prices of two substitute goods, such as high and low grades of the same product, are both increased by a fixed per-unit amount such as a transportation cost or a lump-sum tax, consumption will shift toward the higher-grade product. This is true because the added per-unit amount decreases the relative price of the higher-grade product.

The moral of the story is that under linear transportation costs, it is profitable to send the highest quality goods to the market that is best able to pay for quality. This is why large cities in developed countries (especially in North America and Europe) can have excellent produce shipped in from virtually anywhere. In other words, it makes good economic sense for Manhattan to get the best shrimp.

I have never been to New York City or Boston, so I am largely speculating. Based on available evidence I believe they exist and have quality produce, as do other large cities I have visited such as San Francisco. American supermarkets in smaller cities have improved substantially over the last few decades, but not everyone can have the best.

** These numbers are made up. If you have data, let’s talk.

*** There has been some controversy over the theorem, but more recent work supports it. Tyler Cowen has discussed it in a podcast with Russ Roberts and a paper with Alex Tabbarok.

The Politics of Train Commuting, Part II

Following on Wednesday’s post, we take another look at the everyday politics of commuter trains. Things get serious when trying to find a seat on the London Overground at rush hour–so much so that Brendan Nelson compares it to war.

Brendan Nelson classifies train commuters into three types and gives thorough advice for this "theater of conflict"

Brendan Nelson classifies train commuters into three types and gives thorough advice for this “theater of conflict”

Here’s a summary of Brendan’s advice:

Know your enemies. Train passengers come in several forms:

  • Aspirants – People standing who want to sit down. This includes you.
  • Civilians – People standing who don’t want to sit down, maybe because they’re not going far.
  • Occupants – People currently sitting down. Don’t be fooled though: they’re still in the game.

Don’t take the wrong turn.

When you first get on the train you might turn towards the divide in between two carriages. Don’t! This is an unforgiving quagmire. Much like Napoleon in Russia, your campaign will come to a crushing, drawn-out end if you venture here.

Get in position–but act casual.

Get yourself into the long aisle, where the seats are most abundant. This is the fertile valley of the Overground carriage.

But don’t push past people to get here. Try to act casual, like you don’t really want to sit down anyway. As Sun Tzu said, “All warfare is based on deception“. Seem too predatory and you’ll raise the suspicions of other Aspirants, losing the element of surprise. Let them think you’re a disinterested Civilian.

Other bits of Ian Fleming-worthy advice include:

  • Have the seat occupants only just sat down? If so it might be a while before they get off.
  • Can you guess where their occupants might be heading to? For example you can spot BBC people easily (branded building passes, reading Ariel, cooking up ways to irritate the Daily Mail). They’re going all the way to Shepherd’s Bush, so find a new spot.
  • Who else lurks in the same area? If there are pregnant or infirm Aspirants you should move elsewhere – unless, of course, the Overground has completely erased your sense of ethics.
  • Are the Occupants checking the station name or folding up their newspaper? If so then they may be close to departure.

Brendan then goes into highly detailed description of the end game–again with excellent graphics. The comments section of his post also has some interesting advice from other commuters who share their “tactics.” His original post is well worth your time if you have enjoyed this so far.

Micro-Institutions Everywhere: Elevators

On your own, you can do whatever you want – it’s your own little box.

If there are two of you, you take different corners. Standing diagonally across from each other creates the greatest distance.

When a third person enters, you will unconsciously form a triangle (breaking the analogy that some have made with dots on a dice). And when there is a fourth person it’s a square, with someone in every corner. A fifth person is probably going to have to stand in the middle.

Now we are in uncharted territory. New entrants to the lift will need to size up the situation when the doors slide open and then act decisively. Once in, for most people the protocol is simple – look down, or examine your phone.

From the BBC.

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.

Micro-Institutions Everywhere: Jaywalking

1937 WPA Poster, from Wikipedia

“There was a lot of anger in the early years,” says Norton. “A lot of resentment against cars for endangering streets…. [Auto manufacturers] said, ‘If we’re going to have a future for cars in the city, we have to change that. They’re being portrayed as Satan’s murdering machines.’”

AAA and other auto clubs turned first to the younger generation, financing safety education programs in the public schools that were designed to teach children that streets are for cars, not for kids. They funded safety patrols that taught kids they had to stop for traffic, not the other way around.

One key turning point, according to Norton, came in 1923 in Cincinnati. Citizens’ anger over pedestrian deaths gave rise to a referendum drive. It gathered some 7,000 signatures in support of a rule that would have required all vehicles in the city to be fitted with speed governors limiting them to 25 miles per hour.

Local auto clubs and dealers recognized that cars would be a lot harder to sell if there was a cap on their speed. So they went into overdrive in their campaign against the initiative. They sent letters to every individual with a car in the city, saying that the rule would condemn the U.S. to the fate of China, which they painted as the world’s most backward nation. They even hired pretty women to invite men to head to the polls and vote against the rule. And the measure failed…

The industry lobbied to change the law, promoting the adoption of traffic statutes to supplant common law. The statutes were designed to restrict pedestrian use of the street and give primacy to cars. The idea of “jaywalking” – a concept that had not really existed prior to 1920 – was enshrined in law.

This from Sarah Goodyear at Atlantic Cities, and the Norton she quotes is Peter Norton, author of Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City. In keeping with the theme of micro-institutions, Norton says that when discussing rules that govern traffic behavior, “We’re talking less about laws than we are about norms.”

Traffic Cops and Normalcy

If there’s one group that regularly gets short shrift here on YSPR, it’s traffic cops. In America, they are taken for granted. But this video from BBC points out an under-appreciated role of traffic police: to serve as a sign of normalcy. For the first time in 20 years, there are uniformed civilian men legitimately directing traffic at intersections throughout Mogadishu.

The video states that there has been an entire generation of Somalis to grow up without learning the rules of the road. That’s not quite true, though–they learned rules of the road that were more like “stop if the other guy has a bigger gun” rather than anything to do with red octagons. I have little doubt that there have been informal checkpoints set up by militias in Mogadishu to control traffic. It’s just that they looked less like our vision of a traffic cop and more like this:

Informal checkpoints are common in developing countries. Vincenzo Bove has a paper, “Opium Market, Revenue Opportunities and Insurgency in Afghanistan’s Provinces,” (ungated pdf) that discusses how opium trafficking and violence in Afghanistan are interrelated since the Taliban is able to “tax” drug shipments. Benjamin Olken and Patrick Barron analyze police extortion of legitimate cargo in “The Simple Economics of Extortion: Evidence from Trucking in Aceh.” (ungated pdf) From their abstract:

“Using plausibly exogenous changes in the number of checkpoints, we show that market structure affects the level of illegal payments. We further show that corrupt officials use complex pricing schemes, including third-degree price discrimination and a menu of two-part tariffs.”

The politics of policing is a growing area of research that may merit a post of its own. For now, it will serve to note that much of the literature closely ties corruption to political violence. As much as I dislike traffic cops, I’d take them over a civil war any day.

Update: More recent version of the Afghanistan paper here

Traffic Jam Solutions

I’ve argued before that calling roads public goods is a mistake, and that imposing costs on (actually, revealing costs of) road congestion can help to make traffic flow more efficiently. Here is a round-up of recently articles on actual and planned solutions to reduce traffic.

Seattle implemented a $5 toll on the SR 520 bridge, while I-90 remains free but congested. At least one app has already been released to help commuters calculate the cost in time versus money of the two routes, with real-time traffic information.

New York traffic reportedly moves at a painfully slow 9.6 mph in central Manhattan. A man named Charles Komanoff has proposed increasing the number of taxi medallions and congestion pricing of $8 to $10 per vehicle during peak hours, which he says could reduce average travel times by 12 percent.

Raleigh’s metropolitan planning agency is using the power of data to solve congestion problems. Engineer Kyle Ward, along with entrepreneur Cy Smith, analyzed cell phone data to count the number of daily trips between census tracts in Raleigh. Importantly, they do not follow individual phones. This is good for privacy but limits the usefulness somewhat since we cannot know the actual routes taken.

These developments are important, because they all show how providing planners and commuters with information, whether in the form of a price, an app, or both, can help people to make more efficient choices.

Traffic Circles and Safety

As promised in the last post, here’s one on traffic circles, a subject that I have also taken up here. From The Economist:

One of their main attractions, says Mayor Brainard, is safety. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, an independent research group, estimates that converting intersections with traffic lights to roundabouts reduces all crashes by 37% and crashes that involve an injury by 75%. At traffic lights the most common accidents are faster, right-angled collisions. These crashes are eliminated with roundabouts because vehicles travel more slowly and in the same direction. The most common accident is a sideswipe, generally no more than a cosmetic annoyance.

What locals like, though, is that it is on average far quicker to traverse a series of roundabouts than a similar number of stop lights. Indeed, one national study of ten intersections that could have been turned into roundabouts found that vehicle delays would have been reduced by 62-74% (nationally saving 325,000 hours of motorists’ time annually). Moreover, because fewer vehicles had to wait for traffic lights, 235,000 gallons of fuel could have been saved.

While I’m a bit skeptical of the time and fuel savings estimates there at the end, I do agree with the overall safety and convenience of traffic circles instead of lights. Here in the Triangle they are becoming more and more common. I have to admit that sometimes people do seem very confused by them, trying to turn left instead of going around and so on. However, this is because most driver education programs in the United States don’t educate people about traffic circles, a problem that should be relatively easy to overcome. I’d be interested to hear from people who have spent time driving in countries with lots of traffic circles as to whether or not they agree with the claims of safety or convenience.