Three Take-Aways From TRB

In early January I went to the Transportation Research Board Annual Meeting. For transportation nerds, it’s a truly magical conference: 13,000 researchers and practitioners, experts and neophytes, all crowded into the Washington DC Convention Center discussing hyper-technical aspects of transportation. Bombast and pontifications flow alongside paper-cup coffee and greasy hors d’oeuvres – ideas spread, findings shared, and collaborations begin. 

The conference is complemented with the DC Transportation Camp, a one-day event guided by the participants, typically skewed younger and more technology-focused than the TRB conference. 

Between the TRB Annual Meeting and Transportation Camp, I gleaned three main take-aways from my week in DC.

1. Electric Vehicles Won’t Fix Climate Change

As you know from prior blog posts, I’m extremely concerned about and interested in climate change. Since electric vehicles (EVs) promise to cut down society’s carbon footprint, I attended a couple of sessions on them. 

I left these sessions disillusioned. While I think corporate and public transportation fleets will continue to electrify, the household consumer market is going to be slow-going. One set of researchers looked at characteristics of everyone who bought an EV in 2013 – income, ethnicity, housing type, etc. They used that demographic profile to estimate the maximum percentage of the total car market for EVs under peak conditions – if everyone like these people bought an EV. The results? A whopping 2.44% market penetration. The other 97.66% would still drive gas-powered cars. (Understanding Potential for Battery Electric Vehicle Adoption Using Large-Scale Consumer Profile Data by Rubal Dua, Kenneth White, and Rebecca Lindland.) 

Another researcher, Dan Welch from the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, discussed how EVs tend to be more expensive up-front but cost less to operate than regular internal combustion engine (ICE) cars. Even with a $7,500 federal tax credit, the break-even point is after about 8 years. That’s a time frame which, in my opinion, isn’t short enough to attract any but the most far-sighted consumers, who are already motivated to buy an EV.  However, that leads to another set of research showing…

The cost isn’t even the biggest obstacle to getting EVs into the market. The biggest concern is “range anxiety,” that drivers will have to go more than 50 or 100 miles sometimes, turning their car into a really expensive hunk of useless metal in their driveway.

typical-daily-miles
Source: manitobaev.ca

Axsen, Langman, and Goldberg from Simon Fraser University dived into this and other consumer concerns in their paper Confusion with Innovations: Mainstream Consumer Perceptions and Misperceptions of Electric Drive Vehicle Technology. Beyond range anxiety, there are fears about:

  • Resell value
  • Pace of technological change (and speedy obsolescence)
  • Poor understanding of battery maintenance
  • Obstacles for those urbanites without garages (and, thus, without a spot for a charging station).

Put differently, most people will look at them and see an inferior, risky product that costs more than the alternative. So without one of two necessary conditions:

  1. Even more massive government subsidy or
  2. Dramatic reduction in the cost of batteries

I am skeptical that EVs will ever do anything more than just scratch the household consumer market, especially in the time frame needed to put a dent in climate change.

2. Autonomous Vehicles Will Increase Congestion (Probably A Lot)

Transportation Camp had a session where Robert T. Milam from Fehr and Peers used regional Transportation Demand Models to look at how autonomous vehicle (AV) technology is going to affect traffic congestion (notes here). Assuming all vehicles in the region are automated (a big assumption, I know, but bear with me), the result was an increase in VMT between 12% and 68%, and a reduction of transit trips between 16% and 43%.

20170107_120901

That’s huge. Aside from the environmental catastrophe, the congestion impact from even the low-end of the prediction is likely to be dire.

Then there’s the blow to transit. One reason so many cities like Seattle and LA have been able to pass referenda on increasing transit funding is because higher-income people are finally starting to use it. If those high-income riders are siphoned off from the system into autonomous vehicles, then transit is likely to re-enter the death spiral of the 20th century.

Boosters of the technology will dismiss these findings, arguing that if we use AVs as a shared service (like autonomous Uber or Lyft), then VMT might actually go down at the same time that costs go down. Sure, it might work that way in a few places like New York or San Francisco; the rest of the country is in for another spurt of autophilia.

3. Autonomous Vehicle Boosters Are Too Dismissive of Automation’s Economic Impacts

In numerous interactions I had with those lovers of AV technology, a common thread was a disregard of the economic impacts. Those bullish on automation insist that the people whose jobs will be taken can just go on to do other, more meaningful work.

Perhaps I am especially sensitive to economic dislocations right now – underemployed Rust Belt voters just installed a president with empty promises to bring back manufacturing jobs, many of which were lost to automation. Looking at transportation, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports nearly 3.6 million workers drive a truck, taxi, school bus, or transit bus for a living. We should all take a moment to think about what it will mean when 3.6 million more people are forced into lower-skilled, lower-paid work.

job-in-each-state
Most Common Job in 2014. Source: Planet Money

With so much news about what’s real and what’s fake, about truth and lies, TRB struck a special chord for me this year. Truth is hard to find, and often even harder to accept. I wanted to hear that electric vehicles are our savior, that vehicle automation will fix all of our problems. The truth is messier, more complicated, and takes work to uncover. TRB reminded me that there are literally thousands of smart people dedicated to revealing the truth, just in my tiny corner of the research world.

Godspeed, I say, and keep fighting for the truth – no matter how inconvenient.  

Advertisements

Car Commute: Easy Rider

It’s easy to forget just how unusual my work commute is. This past week it’s been rather cold (one morning was -1 degrees F, according to my weather app). I still biked to the bus stop, rode the express bus to work, and then biked the rest of the way to work.The reason is pretty simple – I didn’t have much choice, since I live in a one-car household and my wife uses it most days. But even if she didn’t need the car, I still probably would have done that same morning routine, because it’s just that – a routine.

At my office in Springfield, multiple people came up to me on that sub-zero day after seeing my bike and said, “I can’t believe you rode your bike into work today.” I sort of shrugged and explained that I didn’t really ride my bike in, not all the way, but only to/from the bus stop.

“Still,” they’d say, “you’re crazy!”

My Easy Ride

Yesterday, I had to drive into work to make it to an afternoon meeting in Northampton, and fortunately the household car was available. Here are the things I noticed on my car commute:

  1. Instead of needing to be out the door by 7:25 AM to make the bus to Springfield, I got to leave at 7:45.
  2. If I left at 7:46, it would be fine – unlike the bus, the car would still be there.
  3. It usually takes me several minutes just to bundle up. Since I was going from a heated home to a soon-to-be-heated car, I didn’t have to spend nearly as much time putting on winter weather gear.
  4. I got to crank my NPR up as loud as I wanted on my way to work.
  5. I got to park literally feet from the entrance to my office, instead of having to bike about a mile from the Springfield Bus Terminal to the office – again, reducing the amount of bundling I needed to do.
  6. I finally got to bring my suit jacket to work with me, which I’d been delaying because I really didn’t want to stuff my suit jacket into a pannier on my bike ride in.
  7. Driving to work was really convenient, easy, stress-free, and generally pleasant.

I forget how thoroughly engineered our transportation system is, so that driving the obvious choice. So self-evident to the point that people think you have a screw loose if you choose not to drive (and as for those poor folks who don’t have a choice and can’t drive – they deserve our sympathies).

Of course, the same does not hold true for places like Boston or New York City. In those cities, space is at a premium and driving is much more difficult – it’s just a reality of geometry. But Springfield, Massachusetts is much more representative of the rest of the country than these metropolises. The car is king.

In the end, if we want people to choose walking and transit and biking as their travel mode, driving has got to become harder. This could be done through more expensive gas, or parking, or dedicating a travel lane to bus service instead of cars – but in the end, if we want more people using active and/or sustainable transportation, driving is just way too easy.

Maps: Pro-Trump in the Pioneer Valley

Since the election results, there has been much discussion about a particular demographic: white males without a college degree. Specifically, the narrative has gone something like:

White men without a college degree have been left behind by the US government and its economy, and their decisive support of Donald Trump was their retribution for this injustice. 

I won’t get into all of the things I think are wrong about this analysis, though I will quote one of my favorite scholars at the Brookings Institute, Richard Reeves, who wrote:

In the long run, the only cure is for whites, and especially white men, to change their expectation that high status, along with a decent-paying job, will be delivered to them merely by virtue of their race and gender.

Furthermore, it is worth pointing out that when you look at a variety of outcomes broken down by race/ethnicity, whites are doing pretty well. If any group of Americans is being left behind, it is (still) African-Americans and Latinos. As John Hudak, another scholar at the Brookings Institute, points out:

The conversation around the “economically marginalized” has focused almost exclusively on white working class voters, and that is a travesty. There are many other Americans who are not traditionally grouped under the heading “white working class voters” who remain economically marginalized—and most of them voted for someone other than Donald Trump.

He goes on to use a variety of charts pointing out that, certainly, some white working class Americans have had a hard time in the 21st century economy – and that this is a bitter pill to swallow when the generation before had no problem making a good living as a lumberjack or welder. But Black and Latino Americans have a much harder time succeeding in today’s economy.

gs_20161115_figure-2-median-weekly-gender1
As a racial/ethnic group, Whites earn far more than Blacks or Latinos.

Regardless of whether it is justified, there have been subsequent analyses released showing the strong correlation between the share of non-college educated whites and the share of votes for Donald Trump in a given state. This made me kind of curious about how that played out here in the Pioneer Valley.

Divides in the Valley

Even though a lot of people think of the region as “The Happy Valley,” full of hippy-dippy liberals with degrees in Women’s Studies, there are definitely conservative areas. 

town-results

I was curious, though – does the prevailing narrative about disaffected white non-college educated men also hold true in our part of the state? So, of course, I went to the American Community Survey to answer that question.

(Warning: Here is where I go into some technical stuff about the analysis I did.) Unfortunately, there was no data at the town level showing proportions of white non-college educated men (at the town level, I could have gotten “white men” or “non-college educated men” but not combining all three). To filter at that level, I had to use an artificial geography that’s called a Public Use Microsample Area, or “PUMA.” This meant that unfortunately I couldn’t get results town-by-town, and the maps I produced might look funny. I swear it’s not my fault!

First, here are how the PUMAs in the Pioneer Valley voted:

trump-vote
“Sources” got cut off, but it was supposed to also list WBUR.

Interestingly, if PUMAs existed as real political units, Trump wouldn’t have won any of them in the Pioneer Valley. However, he still did petty well in the close-in suburbs to the east and west of Springfield. The region gets less pro-Trump the further north you get.

Now for the proportion of the PUMAs that are Non-College Educated White Men (NCEWM):

wmnce_pop

Looking at the map, the two PUMAS most strongly pro-Trump also had the highest NCEWM population. Springfield, right in the middle, had the lowest NCEWM population and also voted most decisively for Clinton.

In fact, running a simple correlation I find an R value of 0.74, which is pretty strong (though there aren’t enough observations to feel comfortable running a statistical test).

table
R = 0.74

So what does this mean?

First off, it means that just like in the rest of the country, the Pioneer Valley has its own political divisions, and that there is geographic clumping of differing political views. It also suggests that the same economic forces getting so much attention in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin are also at play here – our own Rust Belt in Hampden County.

This means that even in uber-liberal Massachusetts, there is still work to be done. Sharing the prosperity inside of 128 is essential to that effort. Otherwise we may find a rude awakening the morning after some election in the future, much as Ohio or Wisconsin did on November 9th.

A Scary-fied Street

It’s been a while since I posted for a variety of reasons, but I didn’t want the spookiest day of the year to pass by without a shot of one of the funnier signs I have seen.

scarified-pavement

This seems appropriate for the season – a scary-fied street. And it is indeed scary when you get further down, because the shoulder drops off and I’m forced to deal with sometimes impatient drivers ever so slightly inconvenienced by having to wait literally a few more seconds to get where they’re going because they are behind a biker.

I should just dress like this guy, and I think I’d get the respect I deserve on the roadways.

20161028_180543
My friend “Chockey”

Happy Halloween!

 

What Does the County Sheriff Do?

The big primary race this year in Hampden County was for County Sheriff. A long-time Sheriff was retiring, opening up the seat for a newcomer. Lawn signs sprouted up all along my commute route, based upon which I predicted that Nick Cocchi would win (I was right). It seemed like a lot of people cared about who’s elected County Sheriff, which led me to two embarrassing questions: 

  1. What does the County Sheriff do?
  2. What does the county do?

Embarrassing questions, because I consider myself a guy who cares a lot about how government works (and, also, I recently wrote a blog post about why local politics are so important and why we should pay attention to them…). So since I didn’t know, I’m guessing at least a few others don’t either. Here’s what I found out.

What the Sheriff Does

First things first, a quick dive into what the County Sheriff does.

county-courthouse
Historic Hampden County Courthouse, with the newer, uglier Hampden County Courthouse inset in the bottom left. Sources: Mass.gov and Wikipedia

Looking through various “About Us” pages for County Sheriff Departments across the state, I can see that they are basically in charge of the County Jail – serving summonses, transporting pre-trial defendants, managing inmate populations, etc.

Here is what MassLive says about the Sheriff’s office:

The sheriff is responsible for overseeing the main men’s jail in Ludlow; a women’s jail in Chicopee; an addiction center currently located in Holyoke, but soon to be relocated to Mill Street in Springfield; an after-incarceration program serving 3,000 former inmates annually; and a day reporting center which monitors 50 to 70 people on GPS bracelets per day who are on probation or parole.

The sheriff also oversees a “serving office” with about 15 deputies serving legal papers on behalf of attorneys and other parties.

 

Other interesting facts for Hampden County Sheriff:

  • Salary: $151,709
  • Term: Six Years
  • Annual Budget: $75 million
  • Staff: 850
  • Inmates: 1,400 – 1,500

So the Sheriff oversees the county jail. Sure that’s important, but a pretty narrow realm of responsibility. Given the limited scope of what the Sheriff does, why do people seem to care so much?

I get the impression that it mostly stems from the opioid crisis sweeping over western Massachusetts; a lot of soundbites focused on how the candidates would address that. But it’s also the only countywide elected office (so far as I can tell), and so I wonder if it draws attention on that basis alone. If you have any other reasons, please post them below!

What Counties Do

This leads me to the next question: If the County Sheriff is our only county official, then why do we have counties? What do they do, anyway?

 

massachusetts-county-map
A Map of Massachusetts Counties. Source: geology.com (with annotations added by author)

 

The National Association of Counties has a brief history of counties. Basically, the idea is that back before the railroad made traveling great distances quick and easy, national, provincial, or colonial governments couldn’t effectively govern the full expanse of their territory. So they divided the territory into smaller chunks, and called them counties. 

In Massachusetts, counties are mostly vestigial. In other states there is a lot of rural land administered by counties; in Massachusetts, there is no unincorporated land (that is, land outside of a city or town boundary). This means all governing functions are taken care of by either the state or the municipality.* Thus, almost all counties have lost governing authority, with the County Sheriff being the only remaining elected official.

Why we have County Sheriffs reminds me of the kid who asked her mother about birthday candles.

“Mom, why do we have birthday candles?”

“Well, if we didn’t, what would we put on top of the birthday cake?”

Counties are tradition. And traditions die hard.

 

*As a side note, counties can also act as a way to incorporate a regional perspective into decision making processes. This is one area where Massachusetts lags, with all decisions taken at either the local or state level, and very little in between. One outcome of this hyper-localism is that zoning decisions are made locally, while transportation decisions are mostly statewide or regional. This means that transportation facilities are often trying to catch up with new large commercial developments, rather than being coordinated from the get-go through regional land use planning.

S’Thievin Stetson and the Mortgage Interest Deduction

10403247_818327637918_449473574942174590_nMy wife and I recently closed on our new home in Holyoke, and we couldn’t be happier. We had been wanting to purchase a home for a long time, for a variety of reasons:

  1. I am a firm believer in the notion of building equity rather than paying rent.
  2. We were tired of the annual rent increase haggling with our landlord.
  3. We couldn’t really personalize our living space, since it wasn’t ours.
  4. Owning a home makes me feel more invested in a community, which as a civically engaged kind of guy, is important to me.

And on and on. But the biggest reason to buy a home for many is strictly monetary – we can now deduct our mortgage interest from our federal income taxes. On top of that, we can deduct municipal property tax from our federal income taxes. All told, according to a tax calculator I used at bankrate.com, we’re going to end up saving over $1,200 per year on our federal taxes on average for the next 30 years.

Wait, what?

Introducting S’Thievin Stetson

robin hood
Source: A.V. Club

We in the Anglo-American tradition tend to venerate the figure of Robin Hood, who stole from the rich and gave to the poor. This is reflected in our income tax policy, which progressively taxes higher incomes more than lower incomes. Well, I want to introduce “S’Thievin Stetson”, Robin Hood’s alter ego. S’Thievin inspired the Mortgage Interest Deduction (MID), one of America’s most regressive, costly, and (unfortunately) sacrosanct tax policies.

The MID was codified into the beast that it is today in the 1986 tax reforms that eliminated many specific deductions and exemptions, in addition to lowering the overall tax rate. For whatever reason, the MID survived those reforms. Today, the deduction costs American taxpayers over $70 billion per year in lost tax revenue, with the majority of the benefit going to households making over $100,000 per year.

regressive tax policy
Source: Center on Budget and Policy Priorities

The argument in favor of the MID most commonly used is that home ownership is a fundamentally good thing that we as a society should be supporting. It encourages community cohesion, promotes investment in the built environment of the town, and is a tool for investing wealth into a stable market (er… forget about that period between 2008 – 2010).

Except that research has shown other countries, like Canada, have similar home ownership rates without the MID. Whoops!

The Political Third Rail

So why do we have it? And why is it so sacred?

I suspect it has to do with who benefits: a whole lot of upper-middle class households.

income bracket
Source: The Atlantic

Much of the current political debate has to do with the 99% versus the 1%. Sure, that seems cut and dry enough. But what about when it’s the 80% versus the 20%? And what does it mean if that 20% produces many of the elected leaders who ultimately make these policy decisions?

I suspect that the MID is going to continue being a “political third rail” (ie touch it and die). Brookings proposed an interesting solution that would seek to shift some of the benefit away from the very wealthy and toward the middle class, but I doubt anything will come of it in the current federal political atmosphere. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try anyway.

Why You Should Care

Ultimately, this matters because when the wealthy pay less in taxes, the rest of us have to pay more. When a household making $200,000 decides to buy a home for $750,000, the renters making $40,000 have to pick up the slack in the federal balance sheet. Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, roads and highways, education – all of these public goods fall increasingly on the backs of those less able to shoulder the burden.

Put differently, renters in Holyoke are subsidizing home owners in Longmeadow. That just doesn’t seem right. Lousy S’Thievin.

 

 

 

The Pioneer Valley’s “New Irish”

We’ve all put on our green shirt and socks, clasped the shamrock pin to our lapels, and downed our green beer. Today is the day that, as the saying goes, “We’re all Irish.” Now that I’m in the Pioneer Valley, and Holyoke specifically, St. Patrick’s Day holds special significance. Holyoke has one of the largest St. Patrick’s Day parades in New England, inflating the population ten-fold this coming Saturday. But even without the parade, St. Patrick’s Day should hold special meaning in the Paper City.

The Great Hunger

To be Irish must include understanding the potato famine of 1845-49. We all know about the blight that destroyed the potato crops on which the Irish depended, but what may be more surprising is the magnitude of death and suffering the Irish endured. Out of a population of around 8.5 million, 1 million people starved to death and another 2 million immigrated. Birth rates plummeted. By Irish independence 70 years later, the population of Ireland was only half of what it was in the 1840s.

Continue reading “The Pioneer Valley’s “New Irish””

Why Northampton Is Expensive And Holyoke Is Not

I was chatting with a coworker who grew up in Northampton about how the city has changed over the years. He was sort of shaking his head in shock and disappointment, saying, “It’s just gotten so expensive. I don’t even know who can afford to live here anymore.”

It’s true. My wife and I have been looking at buying a home in the Pioneer Valley, focusing on Northampton, Easthampton, and Holyoke. We found that for $300,000, you can get a mansion in Holyoke, a nice-ish 3 or 4 bedroom in Easthampton, and a 2-bedroom that needs updating in Northampton – if you’re lucky.

Same Price, Two Vastly Different Homes

Here are two examples I found: Continue reading “Why Northampton Is Expensive And Holyoke Is Not”

Presentation on Planners and Engineers: Can’t We All Just Get Along?

Tomorrow, Thursday 3/10 at 1 PM, I am going to be presenting at UMass-Amherst Transportation Center for their weekly Transportation Seminar. I will be leading a discussion about some differences between urban planners and civil engineers, and how that can sometimes lead to strained relationships between the two fields.

This talk is inspired by a presentation I went to some years ago given by Dr. Kelly Clifton, a professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Portland State University. While I have observed the gap between the two disciplines narrow, I still think it bears running through ways in which practitioners in the two fields could work together better, particularly on challenging projects.

Swing by if you can! If not, I will probably give a synopsis in a later blog post.

seminar poster

 

The Geography of Somewhere

The inevitability of moving to the Pioneer Valley was by no means a given. My wife and I knew that we wanted to leave the Boston area (for a variety of reasons, the cost of housing being first and foremost among them), but there were a lot of different places we could go.

My wife grew up in New Mexico, and I was born and raised in Kentucky. We have lived in New England and the Pacific Northwest, and so had experienced many different parts of the continental US. Each part of the country has something to offer: climate, or culture, or affordability, or agreeable politics. But in the end, a crucial factor for both of us is something lacking in a lot of the country: place.  Continue reading “The Geography of Somewhere”