Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Autopilot and self-driving cars

Every now and again I come upon a self-driving car (or fully automated vehicle, or FAV) puff piece. Here's Robin Chase—of the Cambridgeport Chases—talking about how we'll have fully automated vehicles zipping around and shuttling us places in a matter of years. Here's the AtlanticCities talking about the steps that will be taken to give us FAVs in a very matter-of-fact way. Look, Google has one, right here! Won't it be great when we're all driving FAVs?

I'm skeptical. The main premise of four wheels and an internal combustion engine is 110 years old and hasn't really changed. But technology is great, right? Surely it will solve this problem. Planes have autopilot, so why can't cars.

Because planes have pilots, too. Jim Fallows had a piece recently about "what autopilot can't do." Autopilot doesn't land planes, and in very adverse conditions, it can not compensate for things like gusts of winds from the side. The video he shows has pilots expertly guiding planes in at an angle, then straightening out just in time to touch down and not shear the wheels off. This is not something a computer program can do, because it requires a soft touch on the rudder—and knowledge that can't really be programmed. 99% of the time, autopilot is great. But 99% of the time isn't enough.

For FAVs, the same issue will arise. Sure, 99% of the time, a fully automated vehicle will do fine. And, yes, perhaps there will come a time when FAVs are allowed to be operated on certain limited-access stretches of roadway. But while it's easy (well, not easy, but it's relative) to code a car for the same few situations that come up over and over again, it's a bit harder to solve the myriad issues that account for the other 1%, such as:

  • a patch of ice
  • a piece of debris
  • a bicyclist darting out between two cars
  • a pedestrian jaywalking
  • the proverbial child running after the bouncing ball
Autopilot for airplanes is designed for the easy-to-solve portions of a trip: the set-it-and-forget-it parts. But it still requires two pilots to keep an eye on things. And that's on airplanes with triple redundancy built in everywhere. As long as cars ply public roadways and run on an ICE, they'll need to have a human paying attention to the road ahead.

The Pike Straightening in context

Last year, the state announced that it was going to straighten the Mass Pike in Allston. Everyone agrees this is a good idea: it's an aging structure, it includes far more grade separation than necessary, wider roadways than will be required for all-electric tolling, and a speed-limiting curve. The initial design last year left a lot to be desired: it doesn't change much of the area, and included big, sweeping, suburban-style ramps to move vehicles at high speeds from the Turnpike to Cambridge Street, and then funnels those vehicles in to the same godforsaken intersection with River Street and Western Avenue that already exists. Apparently it will be updated, but as stated now, it is a wasted opportunity.

This area represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to engage major institutions and infrastructure to connect Boston in ways it has never been connected before. This page previously discussed the various related projects in the area. Harvard realized that a decade ago when they bought all the land underlying the area (MassDOT retains full easements). But there are several facets where a long-range outlook for the area would allow massive redevelopment, a new, transit-oriented housing and employment hub, and dramatic improvements to traffic flow to boot. While little of this may come to pass early on, it is important that construction that does take place does not preclude such improvements in the future.
Image from this post. Read the whole thing.

I'm not the only one who thinks this. David Maerz has a great graphic about how Storrow Drive could merge in and out of the Turnpike, and off of the river, and it's a huge step in the direction I'm thinking. I assume we came up with these on our own; it's the right thinking. Hopefully we can convince the state to go in this direction as well.

The long and short of it is that while the project scope may be limited now, nothing should be constructed to preclude future development. The worst thing that could happen would be a highway engineer's dream ramps, speeding traffic along swooping elevated highways. That may work fine 25 miles outside the city, but it would represent a lost opportunity in Allston.


While traffic on the main trunk of the Turnpike (100,000 vehicles per day) flows reasonably well, the same can not be said for the ramps leading on and off (30,000 per day). (Traffic counts here) All traffic is funneled through two toll booths (or in the parlance of the Turnpike, "Plazas") and subsequent sets of ramps. Most of it then goes through a bottleneck. Except for traffic to and from Allston, all traffic to/from Soldiers Field Road, Memorial Drive, Western and River Streets—and by extension Harvard, Central and Kendall Squares and beyond—runs through the intersection at Cambridge Street and the river. Thanks to a series of traffic lights and one-way streets, this ramp backs up to and sometimes through the toll plazas, and because of minimal throughput and merging, often creates delays of 15 minutes or longer. For traffic coming from Cambridge and Storrow Drive, there are similar delays as traffic has to run across the intersection outbound. This ties up in both directions for most busy times of the day.

In addition, these ramps create a horrid environment for cyclists and pedestrians. A relic of 1960s-era planning, Cambridge Street was built like a highway, and pedestrians and cyclists have to cross high speed ramps and then navigate an intersection with long light cycles and few, if any lane markings. Straightening the turnpike without addressing these shortcomings would be a major failure.

Example of a more efficient vehicle route.
Looking further out, however, there is ample opportunity to create additional entrances and exits from the Turnpike, and pull the congestion out of this area. For instance, a set of ramps further west in Brighton would allow traffic from Harvard Square and Fresh Pond Parkway to use the Eliot Bridge and avoid the Turnpike all together. This would remove traffic from this intersection, and reduce travel distances overall. It would also allow better highway access to the New Balance development in Allston, and several neighborhoods which border the Turnpike but do not have nearby highway access. Changes like this are not necessarily directly wihtin the project scope, but they are so intertwined that they should be analyzed along with the straightening itself.

A extension of the street grid (see next section) through the area would also help with congestion, and allow better access to the BU property bordering the rail yard.

Bicycle facilities in yellow:
  • Solid: existing
  • Dashed: under construction
  • Dotted: planned/proposed

Potential highways in orange
Potential green space in Green
Potential street grid in white
Street Connectivity

Allston is currently a black hole for getting from one side of the world to the other. From Boston University to Harvard Square on a bicycle, your options are to use the BU Bridge or Harvard Avenue and the Cambridge Street overpass or a derelict pedestrian bridge. Options by foot or by vehicle are not much better. While concepts include a street grid generally along and north of Cambridge Street, there is the opportunity to connect the streets south to Boston University and Commonwealth Avenue. These would increase bicycle and pedestrian mobility as well as easing the current gridlock at the nearest crossings of the turnpike east and west of the Allston Yard, at the BU Bridge and Harvard Ave/Cambridge Streets. Entrances and exits from the Turnpike would allow for far better connections across this current hole in the system. It would also provide links between much of Boston's bicycle network, which is one of the premises of the People's Pike.


One huge issue in Boston is a lack of affordable housing. Housing in Allston, Brighton, Cambridge and the surrounding areas is accessible to jobs by transit and to the nearby universities. The Allston plot happens to be right in the center of three schools: within a mile of BU, Harvard and MIT. While Harvard owns the land, it could provide housing for all three schools, as well as for the population in general. High-priced riverfront housing (especially if the roadways were pulled away from the river) could help to subsidize construction with less lofty views, but still a great location nearby thousands of jobs and educational facilities. Would this be a complete panacea to the housing issues in Boston? Probably not. But the land would be available to add thousands of housing units, many of them owned by colleges for student housing, which would free up some demand in nearby neighborhoods and stabilize prices. It would also provide an area which area which could be very well connected to transit for commercial development as well. By depressing as much infrastructure as possible and decking over it, a large, open area could be available for development.


Potential route for Soldiers Field Road
away from the river and new parkland
Right now, the Charles River is lined with roadways for five solid miles from Boston the Eliot Bridge and beyond. On the Boston side, Soldiers Field Road and Storrow Drive leave little room for bicycle and pedestrian facilities between the river and the roadway. In addition, Harvard's Business School campus is cut off from the river by the roadway, and the advantages of a beautiful riverfront campus are denuded by a four-to-six lane highway. Harvard is obviously a major stakeholder here, but if they were amenable, the highway could be routed west of their campus and the Stadium. This would, if anything, shorten the length of the roadway, and for Harvard, instead of decking over part of Soldiers Field Road, they would have a direct link to the river.

The change would be dramatic. The current underpasses at Western, River and Harvard could be repurposed for bicyclists (a goal of the Charles River Conservancy and many bicycling and pedestrian activists) saving millions of dollars and achieving a goal for the DCR plans along the river. It would also create one of the best riverfront parks in the country. It would increase the value of real estate near the river. In the 1930s to 1960s, we paved along most of our riverfront. This would be a great opportunity to take it back.


Existing (solid) and potential (dashed) transit.
New stations shown.
Finally, this area is currently reasonably well-connected to the transit system, but it could be dramatically better connected. The state's 10 year transit plan shows DMUs operating from a "West Station" in the Allston yard area to both North and South stations. This is a fine start. But the opportunities here are endless. Currently, there is a drastic demand for travel between Cambridge and the Fenway/Allston/Brookline/Longwood areas. The 1 and 66 are the top two bus routes the MBTA operates, and the M2 runs from Harvard to Longwood ever 5 to 10 minutes at rush hour, and frequently all day. If there were a better connection, it would be great for jobs access and congestion reduction. And buses currently skirt the Allston area, but better connections would certainly improve the situation.

So a first step would be the DMUs between Allston and the downtown terminals. Further along, the line through Kendall could be improved to allow more frequent service and transit-level service could be provided between 128 and North and South stations, serving the high-density Newton-Brighton corridor and adding more transit choices for commuters along the Turnpike, easing congestion further (and pulling off enough demand to, say, eliminate Storrow Drive west of the Bowker overpass).

In the long run, however, the Allston area provides a dramatic link between Harvard Square and Kenmore and points south. When the Red Line was relocated in the 1980s, the former yard leads to the Cabot Yards (now the Kennedy School) were maintained—the tunnels exist to this day, curving from the Red Line tracks parallel to the bus tunnel. The right-of-way is maintained through the campus (a conspicuous gap between buildings) to the river. While tunneling would be expensive, this is a transit corridor that could connect to Allston (via North Harvard Street) and then across Allston. An initial corridor could connect to the B Line on Commonwealth Avenue via the BU campus, with a connection at the "West Station." Further along the line, it could be extended (via tunnel—expensively) through the Longwood Medical Area and Melnea Cass Boulevard to the Andrew or Columbia stations, creating the opportunity for a true Urban Ring. Since it connects with the Red Line on both ends, it could use the Red Line rolling stock (which has higher capacity than other MBTA equipment).

Obviously this is a decades-long plan, but the transitway could be at least roughed in in the Allston area (and maybe connected to the Green Line which could have a short A-Allston branch extending in to the Harvard campus) with provisions added for extensions in both directions. Again, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity with basically a blank slate, and it's much cheaper to build a box now than dig a tunnel under already-built infrastructure.

A lot of these steps are long in the future. However, there is no reason we should construct something now which will preclude this potential in the future.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Red-Blue connector: think outside the tunnel

We recently wrote about the obscenely inflated cost of the Red-Blue Connector. And while the underground costs are certainly inflated, it still involves building a tunnel underground, in loose fill, under a busy street, and then building connections in to an existing station. It would still involve months- if not years-long lane closures, massive utility relocation, and underground station construction. It might be heretic to say so, after Boston has mostly removed above ground transit, but in this case, an elevated solution might be the best solution possible, and not just because it would be cheaper (which it would be).

First, the logistics. The Blue Line tunnel currently ends several blocks east of Bowdoin Station. The original portal was between Joy and Russell Streets (at Nims Square, one of Boston's lesser-known squares). Here's an aerial photograph of the portal; you can see that it is several blocks east of the curve at Bowdoin Station. Most likely, the tracks were capped just east of Joy Street, and the portal filled with dirt and built over. Most likely, it still exists.

And most likely, it could be easily opened. The cheapest option would be to run the Blue Line straight down the center of Cambridge Street at grade, but for a litany of reasons that, uh, wouldn't work. But instead of coming up from underground and flattening out, it could continue sloping upwards and, by Blossom Street, enter an elevated guideway above Cambridge Street. From there, it would continue a few hundred feet and terminate at a two-track station with a center platform above Cambridge Street, adjacent to the current Charles Station.

Click the diagram below to enlarge. All lines are to scale.

There are many, many advantages to an elevated solution. They include:

• The portal exists! There may be some utilities buried there, but not likely major infrastructure; it's probably mostly just fill.

• The portal is built in to the side of Beacon Hill. As the tunnel rises to the surface, the surface falls away. This limits the space that a ramp takes up for the transition from underground to elevated. In addition, because the Blue Line does not require overhead wiring, the tunnel height is lower—and therefore the floor is higher—reducing the amount of climb necessary. A similar subway-to-elevated transition exists for Green Line trains between North Station and the Lechmere viaduct. The distance between the portal and where the viaduct passes over the ramps from the Leverett Circle is conveniently the exact same distance as from Joy Street to Blossom Street on Cambridge Street.

• Once above the street, the viaduct will be quite narrow. Since the East Boston tunnel was originally built for streetcars, Blue Line cars are narrower than, say, Red Line cars. The elevated portion of the Green Line between North Station and Lechmere—especially the new section east of Science Park—is a good guide to the width, although with no need for overhead wire, a Blue Line viaduct could actually be built narrower than the Green Line.

• Charles Station could be built to serve the Blue Line with no added mechanical equipment, and minimal changes to the station. There are already wide stairwells, escalators and elevators in Charles Station which bring passengers from street level to the Red Line. The Blue Line would simply be a platform accessible from the current outbound platform, and would not require any additional infrastructure. Unlike other transfer points in downtown Boston, Charles Station was recently rebuilt, and passages are wide enough for significant additional traffic. An underground station, with additional elevators and escalators

• An elevated Charles Station would require transferring passengers to climb and descend fewer stairs than an underground solution. Imagine a round trip from Cambridge to East Boston. For an underground station, passengers would arrive on the Red Line, descend to street level and then down to the underground, reversing the trip on the way back for a total of four flights of stairs. For an elevated solution, the morning would require two flights—down to street level to cross under the Red Line and then back up—but the evening would be a level transfer, halving the vertical distance each passenger would have to travel.

• While Cambridge Street abuts the historic Beacon Hill neighborhood, it is generally bordered by newer construction, and in many cases by parking lots. The street runs east-west, so most of the shadows cast by an elevated structure would fall on the north side of the street, which is mostly occupied by Massachusetts General Hospital, and in several cases by parking facilities. As a major beneficiary of the project, MGH would likely be willing to have some shadows cast in exchange for far better accessibility. In addition, Cambridge Street already has an elevated structure at Charles Circle, so it is not an entirely new concept to have overhead transit in the area.

• A fire station would likely have to be relocated from the south side of the street between Russell and Joy Streets as they would no longer be able to take left turns across the subway-elevated transition. However, it could be moved to parking facilities on the other side street near MGH, and integrated in to new construction. For instance, a fire house occupies the ground floor of a skyscraper in the Financial District.

• Elevated construction and stations are far less expensive to build than underground. And far less distuptive. While an underground structure would require years of lane closures on Cambridge Street, an elevated structure would require only supports to be built in ground—and those would be in the median. Most of this work—exploration, utility relocation and the pouring of the concrete—could take place outside of rush hours, and the actual viaduct could be built off-site and placed on the pedestals, with minimal interference with local traffic. If the area can survive a three-year closure of the Longfellow Bridge, it could deal with a few short-term lane restrictions.

At $100 million per mile, the elevated section would cost less than $50 million to build. Since the station would be little more than a concrete slab between two tracks—no need to install multiple elevators, escalators and fare control—it would not appreciably add to the cost. It's entirely possible than an elevated solution could be built for under nine figures, far, far less than the state's estimate for an underground connection.

• This project would require few—if any—property takings. The only street-level construction would be supports for the elevated, and these could be built in the existing median on Cambridge Street. Again, the supports for the Green Line connection between Science Park and North Station is a good case study; the base of the concrete pedestals are only five feet wide.

Building a Red-Blue connector is something which would dramatically enhance Boston's transportation network. It would increase ridership, reduce congestion downtown, and provide better employment access for a large part of the area. It would also utilize the only portion of the downtown network which is under capacity—the Blue Line—and allow it to better serve the traveling public. And while the state may be set on inflating the price to high that it will never be built, a compromise solution using as much existing infrastructure as possible could be built more quickly and far less expensively. It is a solution the city and state—and stakeholders in the area—should seriously consider.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Red-Blue Connector: It costs how much?

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts is supposed to build a connection between the Red and Blue lines. But they really, really don't want to. It's probably a very good idea, since it will increase mobility for Blue Line riders accessing jobs in Cambridge. And it will take some of the capacity crunch off the core subway lines where Red-Blue transfers take place. And it will improve access to Logan Airport. And it will shorten trips for thousands of commuters each day who will no longer have to transfer twice, in already-crowded downtown stations. There are definitely benefits. And the state is supposed to build it.

They're doing their best not to. They've claimed that the construction would cost $750 million, which has been called "deliberately high." How deliberate? The costliest subway project in the country—the Second Avenue Subway in New York—costs 1.7 billion dollars per mile. The Red-Blue connector is 1500 feet long. Less than a third of a mile If you do the math, it comes in at $2.7 billion. That's not even in the ballpark. It's an obscene figure and is risible. It shows the state does not want to come close to making a good-faith effort to support this transportation connection.

How much would it cost? Well, likely far less. The current Blue Line tunnels extend underneath Cambridge Street to a former portal at Joy Street. Continuing the tunnel would certainly be disruptive, but could be done in a cut-and-cover method without fully disrupting traffic flow (the street is five lanes wide including the median, and the subway would only require two). Utilities would require movement, but there would be no need to support an elevated roadway or surface train lines above (like the Big Dig). Traffic on Cambridge Street would suffer for a time, but better transit service in the end would be worthwhile. Alon Levy has a compendium of subway construction costs, and most projects fall under $1.5 billion per mile.

A good analog might be the Central Subway in San Francisco. It's a short extension of a light rail-sized transit line (as is the Blue Line; the East Boston tunnel was originally built for streetcars so it's a much smaller gauge than, say, the Red Line) extending to a terminal station in a dense city. It is budgeted for $800 million per mile. If the Red-Blue Connector was built for the same cost, it would come in around $250 million. Or a third of the cost the state estimates.

The $750 million figure is not disingenuous. It's a lie. And an elevated connection—with only a few hundred feet of elevated structure—could be built for a fraction of the cost with a better final product, to boot.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Crosby's Corner: something to like for cyclists

If you drive out Route 2 like I did this weekend (twice, because I misremembered the date for a ski race), you'll notice some construction near the border of Lincoln and Concord. This is Crosby's Corner, and it's an example of a highway project which will likely benefit all users, and which is the right kind of construction to do in this day and age. It's always a breath of fresh air to remember that MassDOT secretary Rich Davey has said that we're not building any more highways. But it's the right policy: fix and streamline what you have so that it serves the people who use it.

So, Crosby's Corner. It's the second light on Route 2 past 128, where, going outbound, you come down a hill and take a left. It's certainly not what you'd think of being a safe design, but it dates from the 1930s when there was far less traffic than today. Now it is a backup-causing bottleneck (one of several on Route 2) and probably the most dangerous intersection on the road. Outbound, there's the left turn light at the bottom of a hill. Inbound, there's a sharp right at the bottom of a hill and then a left-hand merge with no merge space. There have been some pretty horrendous accidents, and it is only a matter of time until the next one.

The plans for improvements are generally good. A few houses were taken for the construction, which will take up more space than the current roadway, although it won't feel like a superhighway interchange. What excites me most, however, is that for the first time in nearly a century, bicyclists will be able to get from Route 2A to Sandy Pond Road, filling a major gap in the cycling network.

Some of the best bicycling in the region is north and west of Boston. Once you get past 128, the rolling country roads of Lincoln, Concord and beyond are a cyclists dream: they're too narrow for high speed driving, and twisty enough that (for the most part) they don't form direct enough routes to be amenable for through traffic. The one downside is Route 2: while there are some crossing points, there are several areas where access is, for all intents and purposes, limited to cars. (Route 2 is not a limited access freeway, and bicycling would be technically legal, but it would be extraordinarily dangerous.)

I will admit that the Crosby's Corner area is not currently, nor will it ever be, a major bike commuting corridor. But it will connect Sandy Pond Road, a beautiful, low-traffic roadway, to 2A, a more heavily-used thoroughfare, but one with enough of a shoulder to be amenable to cyclists. On my evening summer rides, I often face the question of cutting across Route 2 on Bedford Road, or adding 6 miles to my ride to head out to Concord center, and then back on Route 126. Taking Sandy Pond Road would be great, but would require a 100 yard ride on and then left turn across Route 2, unfeasable even over such a short distance. The new plans will allow cyclists to cross under Route 2 and then take a somewhat roundabout route to Sandy Pond Road. While the current plans don't mention it, a short cycletrack-like path from Sandy Pond Road along the Route 2 shoulder would better facilitate bicycling movements. This should be a goal of the project, as it would be an inexpensive way to work in dramatic bicycle improvements for a $60 million highway project.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

A response to the DCR anti-bike statement

Recently, UniversalHub posted an exchange with the DCR regarding winter bicycling maintenance. I've seen this as an issue before, but the derision with which the DCR views cyclists is repugnant. I've been stewing about this all morning and have posted a line-by-line rebuttal to the last directive which really makes my blood boil. Not only is it derisive and dismissive, but it shows how little the DCR cares about anything that doesn't have four wheels and an internal combustion engine. I am going to go through it sentence by sentence and provide notes, in italics:
We should all be stating as a policy that DCR has no responsibility or intent of providing "safe" winter biking opportunities on any of our linear paths or sidewalks. 
Since when is this the DCR policy. Is there anything in state statute that directs them not to maintain safe winter conditions on their linear paths or sidewalks? Or is this an internal policy decision.
This is impossible! 
Simply not true. There are several examples of paths which are plowed and maintained in Boston. These include the Minuteman Bikeway, which is maintained by the towns it passes through and well-used. The Somerville Community Path is similar. MassDOT should be applauded for their efforts to keep the Longfellow clear of snow; they have done a stellar job and shown that it certainly is possible to provide a clear path for non-auto users. Additionally, if you look at cities like Madison, Saint Paul and Minneapolis, they have no issue keeping paths trails for cycling. It's been above freezing in Minneapolis 8 days since December 4. So don't give me the "it's too cold in Boston." It's been below 0˚ 42 days in that time frame. Spare me.
Any path or walk where we do snow removal is strictly to provide reasonable continued passage for pedestrians.
Why is the level of maintenance between these paths and the parallel roadways different? The roadways are pleasure roadways, yet they are maintained to the same level as any other roadway. If the DCR ran a single plow after the storm and let drivers fend for themselves, I'd understand them not clearing the pathways. However, that is not the case.
If anyone wants to bike our paths in winter they should assume variable and dangerous conditions, and know they are doing it at there own risk.
Then why call them bike paths? The Paul Dudley White Bike Path is called a bike path because it is a bike path. The Soouthwest Corridor is explicitly signed for bicyclists. We understand that paths might not be free of ice and snow, much like we understand that roadways may have patches of ice and snow on them. However, we expect that when we pay tax dollars these go towards maintaining the pathways—putting some effort in to it. It is clear the DCR does not feel that this is the case.
Frankly, I am tired of our dedicated team wasting valuable time addressing the less than .05% of all cyclists who choose to bike after a snow/ice event. 
Wow. Where to begin. First of all, the DCR is spending a lot of time defending not doing any work. How about spending some of this energy going out and actually clearing off the snow from their properties. Then they wouldn't have to waste this valuable time. Second, 0.05% of cyclists choose to bike after a snow/ice event? This is ridiculous. It's possible someone here doesn't understand math and meant 5% (0.05 is 5%, but 0.05% is 0.0005). They are saying that one in 2000 cyclists bikes after a snow event. I was out cycling this past week and rode with a group of five bicyclists on Main Street in Cambridge. By this calculation, there would be 10,000 cyclists on Main Street on a given morning. I can tell you that is not the case. This is dismissive and wrong. 
Sometimes during winter in Boston you can safely bike, and I do it when it is dry and safe. 
False equivalence. Do we say "sometimes you can drive in Boston, when it is dry and safe?" And just because you don't does that mean that no one should?
This is not one of those winters! 
Please go out and stand on a street corner in Boston and see if there are any safe cyclists. I can attest that there are many.
We should not spend time debating cyclists with poor judgement and unrealistic expectations, and stick with [the staffer]'s recommendation that they find other transportation.
Cyclists who want to be able to bike in the winter have poor judgement? Do drivers who drive in the winter have poor judgement? And is it really unreasonable to expect that bike paths designated as such would be maintained for bicyclists? If this staffer believes that this is the case, they are derelict in their duty and should be removed from their position.
If someone is completely depending on a bike for year-round transportation, they are living in the wrong city.
This is repugnant. The state has a goal of reducing SOV travel, but apparently the DCR is not on board. It is time for the DCR to work with the rest of the Commonwealth, not against it. And if Boston is the wrong city to be a cyclist in the winter, perhaps we should move to Minneapolis or Madison, a city with worse winters, but which actually invests in its cyclists.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Uber surge pricing: anti-congestion pricing and economic externalities

I'm a devotee of NPR's Planet Money podcast, but listening to a recent episode had me screaming at my—well, at my earbuds—when they described how Uber's surge pricing and business model was good for everyone. The episode is moderately informative, but I take issue with a major premise of their reporting: the argument that charging a lot for service and matching supply and demand is a benefit for all users. You can listen to the entirety of the episode here; the segment I take issue with starts around 11:00.

Here's a quick breakdown of the conversation:

  • Uber benefits car drivers, because they can make more money when prices "surge."
  • Uber benefits people with high disposable income ($150 for a trip from Manhattan to Brooklyn), because they can choose to pay a lot of money to get a car when demand is high.
  • Uber benefits people waiting for cabs because Uber gets more cars on the road, so the wait time for other cars is less.

The last piece is where I take issue. In a closed system, this would be the case. But it's not. Here's a quote from the show: "when drivers see an area of the city where fares are high … they all go there." Remember, we're talking about New York City. When there's a congested area, Uber provides an incentive for more drivers to go to this congested area. This creates more congestion, which actually results in slower speeds for taxicabs, and—I would posit—fewer available rides for people not willing to pay a lot of money, not more, as they suggest.

Which is fine, in economic theory. However, when looking at traffic, "congestion" is shorthand for "demand." So by attempting to provide efficient transportation options, it is a transfer of utility from the poor to the rich. Taxicabs are strictly regulated because they serve as a part of the transportation network, both in fare and in number. By sending a fleet of expensive black cars to a congested area, Uber squeezes out the more affordable taxis from the street. Someone willing to pay triple the fare for a ride might call and Uber, but someone who can't afford that service now has a potentially longer wait for a cab (which can't get to the area due to congestion) and then everyone has a longer ride due to the congestion. Part of the taxicab regulations—at least in theory—provide enough cabs to provide service without gridlocking the city (obviously, here too theory and practice are almost mutually exclusive). Adding more and more cars to already congested streets creates crippling congestion. That's—to use economist speak—a major negative externality for everyone.

Now the argument could be made that people waiting for cabs should just take the subway. It's a good argument; in the podcast they interviewed someone waiting in a 30 minute cab line, in the snow, at Penn Station for a ride "downtown," an area well-served by the nearby subway (for lower prices, too). And for some of these riders, they might make that choice. But others probably have rational reasons to look for a cab: perhaps they have a bulky item. Perhaps they're trying to get somewhere not well-served by transit. Plus, the added street-level congestion might drive more people to use the subway, which will create more congestion below-ground too. Adding more vehicles above-ground doesn't seem like a great solution.

Uber's surge pricing, in my view, is the opposite of congestion pricing. What works in London and Singapore has faced stiff opposition in New York City (especially from interests outside the city). With congestion pricing, Uber (in theory) would make more sense, since the overall traffic would (in theory) be mitigated enough that surge pricing wouldn't send more cars in to already-congested areas. Until then, Uber's surge pricing is part of the problem, not part of the solution. And it certainly doesn't benefit the vast majority of travelers.