September 7, 2017

Roman Roads of Britain

Filed under: Britain, History — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Last month, Colin Marshall shared this post on Open Culture:

[Click to embiggen]

Though some of Britain’s Roman Roads have become modern motorways, most no longer exist in any form but those bits and pieces history buffs like to spot. This makes it difficult to get a sense of how they all ran and where — or at least it did until Sasha Trubetskoy made a Roman Roads of Britain Network Map in the graphic-design style of the subway maps you’ll find in London or any other major city today. Trubetskoy, an undergraduate statistics major at the University of Chicago, first found cartographical fame a few months ago with his “subway map” of roads across the entire Roman Empire circa 125 AD.

“Popular request,” he writes, demanded a Britain-specific follow up, a project he describes as “far more complicated than I had initially anticipated.” The challenges included not just the sheer number of Roman Roads in Britain but a lack of clarity about their exact location and extents. As in his previous map, Trubetskoy admits, “I had to do some simplifying and make some tough choices on which cities to include.” While this closer-up view demanded a more geographical faithfulness, he nevertheless “had to get rather creative with the historical evidence” in places, to the point of using such “not exactly Latin-sounding” names as “Watling Street” and “Ermin Way.”

September 6, 2017

Grand Trunk Pacific Transcontinental Railway Construction – circa 1910 Documentary – WDTVLIVE42

Filed under: Cancon, History, Railways — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Published on 26 Mar 2017

The Grand Trunk Pacific Railway was a historical Canadian transcontinental railway running from Winnipeg to the Pacific coast at Prince Rupert, British Columbia. East of Winnipeg the line continued as the National Transcontinental Railway, running across northern Ontario and Quebec, crossing the St. Lawrence River at Quebec City and ending at Moncton, New Brunswick. The entire line was managed and operated by Grand Trunk Railway. Construction of this transcontinental railway began in 1905 and was completed by 1913.

Scenes show earthworks and removal of spoil via railway carriages, steam locomotives hauling flatcars, sleepers being unloaded from trains and position on the new roadbed, unloading of rails, fastening of rails to sleepers, and the works train travelling over the newly completed trackwork.

WDTVLIVE42 – Transport, technology, and general interest movies from the past – newsreels, documentaries & publicity films from my archives.
#trains #locomotive #railways #wdtvlive42

September 5, 2017

The 100 Year Flood Is Not What You Think It Is (Maybe)

Filed under: Environment, Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 08:21

Published on 6 Mar 2016

Today on Practical Engineering we’re talking about hydrology, and I took a little walk through my neighborhood to show you some infrastructure you may have never noticed before.

Almost everyone agrees that flooding is bad. Most years it’s the number one natural disaster in the US by dollars of damage. So being able to characterize flood risks is a crucial job of civil engineers. Engineering hydrology has equal parts statistics and understanding how society treats risks. Water is incredibly important to us, and it shapes almost every facet of our lives, but it’s almost never in the right place at the right time. Sometimes there’s not enough, like in a drought or just an arid region, but we also need to be prepared for the times when there’s too much water, a flood. Rainfall and streamflow have tremendous variability and it’s the engineer’s job to characterize that so that we can make rational and intelligent decisions about how we develop the world around us. Thanks for watching!

FEMA Floodplain Maps: https://msc.fema.gov/portal
USGS Stream Gages: http://maps.waterdata.usgs.gov/mapper

August 31, 2017

“Harvey is not Katrina”

Nicole Gelinas on the crucial differences between the situation faced by New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina and that currently faced by Houston after being inundated by Hurricane Harvey:

The Houston region has received record rain, more falling in less than a week than it usually does in a year, and at least 30 people, including a Houston police officer, have died. Harvey, however, is not Katrina. One measure of this difference is in electricity provision. After Katrina, New Orleans was almost entirely without power for weeks. In Houston, by contrast, 94 percent of customers still had power as of early Wednesday.

Though we won’t know for sure for a while, the fact that Houston has kept the power on is likely in part a legacy of infrastructure investment after previous storms. Five years ago, Hurricane Ike actually cut power to 95 percent of Houston. But, as NPR reported after the storm, the city’s power company, CenterPoint, took steps after Ike, as well as after Tropical Storm Allison in 2001, to upgrade the grid, spending $400 million. Houston, helped by $50 million in federal money, cut down tens of thousands of trees along power lines and outfitted poles with the ability to re-route electricity away from damaged routes toward undamaged ones.

With power, hospitals can continue to operate; even Ben Taub Hospital, surrounded by water, kept the power on. Stores, too, have quickly begun to reopen. Power also means that people whose homes didn’t flood can stay put, lessening the burden on police to keep neighborhoods safe from looters. If the power stays on — as it should, now that worst of the storm is over — Houston should do well. If it goes out, the city will have far more serious problems.


Empty neighborhoods and business districts invite looting. Houston had already arrested 15 people as of late Tuesday for allegedly trying to steal everything from liquor to an ATM, and for attempted robbery, as well. These arrests, plus a nighttime curfew, are a good sign; after Katrina, New Orleans police officers failed to keep control over the city, both because of the severity of the damage, which left most of the city empty and dark, but also due to their longstanding poor performance. Harris County district attorney Kim Ogg and Houston police chief Art Acevado have already set the right tone to deter wrongdoing. Ogg said Tuesday that thieves “are going to feel the full weight of the law,” and Acevedo said he would push for tough sentences for people convicted. In New Orleans, by contrast, state and local officials’ apocalyptic invocation of “martial law,” rather than calm reliance on the rule of normal law, only exacerbated the sense of chaos.

With some, though not most, Houston neighborhoods now deserted, state law enforcement have a role to play here, as well, with federal support. A competent local police force will be busy, after a storm, in helping still-populated areas. In turn, state police and the National Guard, who have less experience interacting with people on a neighborhood level, can help by patrolling and securing empty areas. To that end, Texas has already activated the National Guard, adding 12,000 people to safety efforts, as well as for rescue and food distribution.

Oh, and as Caroline Baum points out, don’t be misled by idiotic claims that hurricane damage is somehow good for the economy:

You will no doubt hear assertions that the rebuilding effort will provide a boost to contractors, manufacturers and GDP in general. But before these claims turn into predictable nonsense about all the good that comes from natural disasters, I thought it might be useful to provide some context for these sorts of events.

The destruction wrought by a hurricane and flooding qualifies as a negative supply shock. Normal production and distribution channels are destroyed or disrupted. Producers have to find less-efficient (i.e. more expensive) ways to transport their goods. The net effect is lost output and income, and higher prices.

Over the years, I’ve observed a tendency among economists and traders to view such events through a demand-side prism. They see lost income translating into reduced spending on goods and services, which might even warrant some largesse from the central bank.

Of course, that is precisely the wrong medicine. Supply shocks reduce output and raise prices. The Federal Reserve’s interest-rate medicine affects demand. Lower interest rates will increase the demand for gasoline, among other goods and services, but they have no effect on supply. An easing of monetary policy under such circumstances would increase demand for already curtailed supply, raising prices even more.

But wait. What about all the new construction and investment necessitated by the devastation? Homeowners will have to rebuild. Businesses will have to replace destroyed or damaged plants and equipment. Pretty soon, we should start to hear about a boost to GDP growth.

In the short run, yes. But focus on the prefix, “re,” as in re-building and re-placing. After a natural disaster, housing starts are bound to increase, but there will be no net addition to the supply of homes. Capital spending will increase as well, but it will not expand the nation’s capital stock.

She also provides a link to this very topical essay by Frédéric Bastiat: That Which Is Seen and That Which Is Unseen. In short, we see the spending caused by the need to repair damages (in this case from the flooding), but we don’t see what might have been done if the money hadn’t needed to be spent just to replace existing stock.

July 6, 2017

British tram-train project is already 500% over budget and years late

Filed under: Britain, Government, Railways — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

It was decided, at some point, to spend £15m to build a hybrid rail connection between Sheffield and Rotherham. It’s late (not too surprising) and over-budget (also not too surprising). What is surprising is just how far over-budget the project has gone: that initial £15m budget has now grown to an estimated £75m, and there may be no end in sight. Hannah Boland reports for the Telegraph:

Artist’s conception of the Sheffield-Rotherham tram-train. (Railway-Technology.com)

Transport company Stagecoach has won £2.5m in compensation from the Government after the completion date for the Sheffield to Rotherham tram-train project, for which it is supplying vehicles, was pushed back multiple times.

The National Audit Office (NAO), in a report released on Tuesday, said Stagecoach had claimed “prologation costs” and loss of revenue for the two-and-a-half-year delay of the government-sponsored project.

The scheme was approved in 2012, aimed at modifying train and tram infrastructure and buying vehicles capable of operating on both networks.

The Department for Transport had originally said it would be completed by December 2015, and would cut transport costs in the region.

However, Network Rail, which is undertaking the first stage of development, pushed back the deadline, first in 2014 and then in 2016, to May 2018.

The £15m budget originally agreed between the department and Network Rail has rocketed to £75.1m.

Tim Worstall offers some comments:

We hear ever louder cries, in both the UK and US, that government really must get on with spending billions, trillions even, on building out vital infrastructure — the problem with this being that government isn’t very good at building infrastructure. In fact, government is so bad at building infrastructure that there is a very strong argument to have it built by private economic actors. Yes, true, it’s entirely possible that the plutocrats will then profit from the public, even that only projects which make a profit get built, but we would have, given government’s record, more infrastructure for less money.

At least, that’s the lesson to take from this disaster with the Sheffield-Rotherham tram-train project. It is currently an alarming 5 times over budget and horribly late. Further, at this price it should never have been built. It is simply not possible that the value in use of this will exceed the costs of doing it — this is something which makes us all poorer […]

And here is in fact that cost benefit ratio [PDF]:

    1.0 the benefit–cost ratio for the programme when it was approved
    in May 2012. The business case was based on benefits to local
    transport users. The Department approved the project on the basis
    of the ‘strategic’ business case. Wider industry and economic
    benefits were considered ‘very uncertain’

    0.31 the Department’s estimated benefit–cost ratio – based on the
    local public transport case – as at October 2016

For any project, however funded and whatever it is, we need to have benefits higher than costs. This is simply because economic resources are scarce therefore we need to use them to add value. We have here a project where the benefits are one third of the costs — this is something which makes us all poorer. It should not be done therefore. And even after it was started once this fact became known it should have been stopped.

But it wasn’t stopped, of course:

It wasn’t cancelled for political reasons. It was felt that cancellation would lead to “reputational damage.” The way to read that being that once government has decided to do something not splurging the taxpayers’ money like a sailor on shore leave might call into question the right of government to splurge the taxpayers’ money like a sailor on shore leave.

December 2, 2016

The Ontario government – “It doesn’t exactly take Moriarty to get one over on this gang”

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Cancon, Government — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Ontario’s Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk has a few mild criticisms of how Kathleen Wynn’s government spends public money on infrastructure:

Over the next decade, the Ontario government plans to spend $17 billion rehabilitating existing infrastructure, mostly on roads and bridges, and $31 billion on new infrastructure, mostly on public transit — much of the latter in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area. For some weary commuters, the promise of relief might be one of the few remaining attractions Premier Kathleen Wynne’s phenomenally unpopular administration has to offer — assuming, of course, they have some degree of confidence their money will be spent properly.

Page 496 of Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk’s latest report, released Wednesday, has something to say about that.

The scene: the Pickering GO station. Metrolinx was to build a pedestrian bridge across Highway 401. Not a herculean feat, one might have thought. Alas the winning bidder “had no experience in installing bridge trusses” — which is “something that a contractor constructing a bridge would be expected to know how to do,” Lysyk’s report dryly notes.

After the contractor “installed one truss upside down” — no, seriously — Metrolinx essentially took over the project. But it paid the contractor the full $19-million for the first phase of the project anyway. Then it gave the same contractors the contract for phase two — hey, it had the low bid! — and lo and behold they pooped the bed again, damaging glass to the tune of $1 million and building a stairway too wide to accommodate the planned cladding.

At this point, according to the Auditor-General, Metrolinx terminated the contract. It paid 99 per cent of the bill anyway. And later — no, seriously! — it gave the company another $39 million contract. “Metrolinx lacks a process to prevent poorly performing contractors from bidding on future contracts,” the report observes. Transport Minister Steven Del Duca said a new “vendor performance management system” would do just that, but one wonders why something so fancy-sounding was necessary to perform such a basic function. (Metrolinx spokesperson Anne Marie Aikins disputes the decision-making timeline in the report; according to hers, the contractor’s ineptitude was unknown when further work was awarded.)

August 21, 2016

Why Trains Suck in America

Filed under: Railways, USA — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Published on 16 Aug 2016

Trains, well, just aren’t that great in America. Here’s why.

March 25, 2016

QotD: The infrastructure problem in America

[David Cay] Johnston’s piece is titled America should be more like Disneyland but instead of thinking seriously about what this means he fumbles on the 20 yard line and concludes that what makes Disneyland different is… happy thoughts. If only we were more like W.D., he says, “we could make America into a happy place.”

No, what makes Disney invest in infrastructure is not happy thoughts. Johnston is in fact clear about this:

    The Walt Disney Co. invests in infrastructure because it makes the company money.

The problem with America is that our public infrastructure has been turned over to a fickle political process that is not governed by a rational calculation of cost and benefit, market test and experimentation but by a pursuit of power, glory and advantage that only rarely coincides with the public interest.

America should be more like Disneyland and to do that we need to develop institutions that allow more infrastructure to built by the private sector. Most ambitiously we need more cities as hotels, more proprietary cities. As Rajagopolan and I wrote in our study of India (in Cities and Private Planning):

    The lesson of Gurgaon, Walt Disney World, and Jamshedpur is that a system of proprietary, competitive cities can combine the initiative and drive of private development with the planning and foresight characteristic of the best urban planning. A proprietary city will build infrastructure to attract residents and revenues. A handful of proprietary cities built within a single region will create a competitive system of proprietary cities that build, compete, innovate, and experiment.

Alex Tabarrok “How to make America more like Disneyland”, Marginal Revolution, 2014-12-17.

November 21, 2015

Submarine cables

Filed under: Technology — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 04:00

In The Atlantic, Ingrid Burrington tries to persuade her editor that the submarine cable network is still of critical importance to understanding the cloud:

“So Ingrid,” Sam asked, “how exactly will you convince your editor that submarine cables are relevant to The Cloud?”

We were maybe still in New Mexico or somewhere in Kansas. It was a night drive. Time moves weirdly during night drives. All roads basically become the closing moments of Terminator 2. Whenever it was and wherever it was, it was apparently a good time for my driving partner to pose questions about some of the stories I had lined up for this series, including one exceptionally long piece about a submarine cable (which, dear reader, will run later this week).

“Well,” I replied, “clouds are just evaporated molecules of water that emerge from larger bodies of water. Oceans are bodies of water. It’s … it’s relevant.”

Look, I was pretty tired. But if there is a case to be made for placing submarine cables within the landscape of The Cloud, it’s more a case for historical continuity and resonance. Cloud infrastructure is a landscape of interdependent systems, submarine cables among them.

Submarine cables don’t come up in the news that often, but if they do it seems to be in two forms: short articles reminding everyone that the Telegeography Submarine Cable Map exists, and short articles of hand-wavey reminders that submarine cables are vulnerable to harm (from tectonic plates, ship anchors, sharks, and terrorists, among others).

While these are totally valid topics to explore, I often find these stories lacking in context about the various systems, geographies, and politics that shape submarine networks. While there are lots of other super compelling aspects of submarine-cable law and policy (says the person who owns a copy of Submarine Cables: The Handbook of Law and Policy), here are two questions that might help readers take in Telegeography takes with a little less gee-whiz and a little more clarity.

Speaking of submarine cables, I was unaware of how many northern Canadian communities are connected via that method:

Submarine cables in Canada's Arctic

May 1, 2015

Statistical myths in California’s water shortage

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Economics, Environment, Media, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Devin Nunes debunks the common claim that California’s farmers use “80 percent” of the available water in the state:

As the San Joaquin Valley undergoes its third decade of government-induced water shortages, the media suddenly took notice of the California water crisis after Governor Jerry Brown announced statewide water restrictions. In much of the coverage, supposedly powerful farmers were blamed for contributing to the problem by using too much water.

“Agriculture consumes a staggering 80 percent of California’s developed water, even as it accounts for only 2 percent of the state’s gross domestic product,” exclaimed Daily Beast writer Mark Hertsgaard in a piece titled “How Growers Gamed California’s Drought.” That 80-percent statistic was repeated in a Sacramento Bee article titled, “California agriculture, largely spared in new water restrictions, wields huge clout,” and in an ABC News article titled “California’s Drought Plan Mostly Lays Off Agriculture, Oil Industries.” Likewise, the New York Times dutifully reported, “The [State Water Resources Control Board] signaled that it was also about to further restrict water supplies to the agriculture industry, which consumes 80 percent of the water used in the state.”

This is a textbook example of how the media perpetuates a false narrative based on a phony statistic. Farmers do not use 80 percent of California’s water. In reality, 50 percent of the water that is captured by the state’s dams, reservoirs, aqueducts, and other infrastructure is diverted for environmental causes. Farmers, in fact, use 40 percent of the water supply. Environmentalists have manufactured the 80 percent statistic by deliberately excluding environmental diversions from their calculations. Furthermore, in many years there are additional millions of acre-feet of water that are simply flushed into the ocean due to a lack of storage capacity — a situation partly explained by environmental groups’ opposition to new water-storage projects.

April 9, 2015

Politicians love to build infrastructure – they’re not as eager to maintain it

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Government, Media, Politics — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 05:00

Politicians love big infrastructure projects, from gala announcement — featuring plenty of face time in the media for the politicos themselves — to ground-breaking, also featuring lots of media along with hard hats and “first shovel” action through to grand opening, usually featuring lots of media along with ribbon cutting and some sort of first action involving the newly built bridge/dam/tunnel/streetcar/etc. For some inscrutable reason, politicians are much less eager to get involved in making sure that the glitzy new infrastructure of a few years back gets appropriate and timely maintenance (and the permanent bureaucracy in charge of the now-built infrastructure have rather different long-term goals):

I think the cause lies in a couple areas related to government incentives

  1. Legislatures never want to appropriate for capital maintenance. If the legislature somehow has, say, $100 million money it can spend on infrastructure, their incentives are to use it to build new things rather than to keep the old things in repair (e.g. to extend a rail line rather than to keep the old one fixed).
  2. If you want to understand a government agency’s behavior, the best rule of thumb is to assume that they are working to maximize the headcount and the payroll budget of their agency. I know that sounds cynical, but if you do not understand an agency’s position or priorities, try applying this test: What would the agency be doing or supporting if it were trying to maximize its payroll. You will find this explains a lot

To understand #2, you have to understand that the pay and benefits — and perhaps most important of all — the prestige of an agency’s leaders is set by its headcount and budgets. Also, there are many lobbying forces that are always trying to pressure an agency, but no group is more ever-present, more ubiquitous, and more vocal than its own staff. Also, since cutting staff is politically always the hardest thing for legislators to do, shifting more of the agency’s budget to staff costs helps protect the agency against legislative budget cuts. Non-headcount expenses are raw meat for budget cutters, and the first thing to get swept. By the way, this is not unique to public agencies — the same occurs in corporations. But corporations, unlike government agencies, face the discipline of markets that places a check on this tendency.

This means that agencies are loath to pay for the outside resources (contractors and materials) that are needed for capital maintenance projects out of their regular budgets. When given the choice of repairing a bathroom at the cost of keeping a staff person, agencies will always want to choose in favor of keeping the staff. They assume capital maintenance can always be done later via special appropriation, but of course we saw earlier that legislators are equally unlikely to prioritize capital maintenance vs. other alternatives.

The other related problem faced is that this focus on internal staff tends to drive up pay and benefits of the agency workers. This drives up the cost of fundamental day to day tasks (like cleaning bathrooms and mowing) and again helps to starve out longer-horizon maintenance functions.

March 11, 2015

China’s “Catch up” growth

Filed under: China, Economics — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

In Forbes, Tim Worstall looks at last week’s announcement that China is (slightly) lowering their economic growth forecast.

On that larger scale though what people are worrying about is this. Catch up growth is easier than growth from the technological frontier. What is meant by this is that it’s a great deal easier to generate economic growth if you have an example in front of you of how to do things. To take a trivial example, if you can go and buy a mobile phone, take it apart to see how it works, it’s a lot easier to copy that technology than it is to invent it for the first time. And this is true of how you make cement, how you put up buildings, how you farm a field and so on. And at root that’s what economic growth is: becoming more efficient at doing all of these things as well as everything else. Each time you become more efficient at doing one task you free up resources to be doing something else. Thus you get both the original thing plus the new one from the same resources: this is the very definition of economic growth.

However, there’s a limit to such catch up growth. In certain areas China is right at that technological frontier (in some areas ahead of the rest of the world in fact). Which is where things become more difficult: there’s no one to copy. Therefore that invention has to happen domestically. This is obviously more difficult. But also it rather requires a certain set of institutions. The rule of law, property rights and so on. These aren’t things that China notably has (although things are very much better than they were decades ago). It’s those headwinds that need to be beaten. Bringing in these new institutions, embedding them in the society and the economy, without causing so much disruption as to slow down growth while they are done.

The standard jargon for this is “middle income trap”. To be crude about it the general feeling is that it’s pretty easy to go from dirt poor to middling income. The essence is really just to stop doing stupid things that hold economic development back. China’s done that very well even though they did start from a very low level of an immense number of very stupid things that Maoism did to hold economic growth back. The middle income trap is where the transition over to those institutions that promote technological frontier growth don’t appear (or are not imposed). And thus the stunning growth peters out.

February 11, 2015

Light rail – cool but ultra-expensive. Buses – cheap and flexible but lack glamour

Filed under: Economics, Government, Railways, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

At Mother Jones, Kevin Drum looks at the image problem of buses compared to the seemingly irresistable pull of light rail (at least to municipal politicians looking to overspend and under-deliver):

Josh Barro thinks our cities are building too much light rail. It’s expensive, often slow, and offers virtually no advantage over simply opening up a bus line. The problem, according to a 2009 report from the Federal Transit Administration, is that “Bus-based public transit in the United States suffers from an image problem.” But what if transit agencies tackled that image problem head on?


So perhaps we need a two-pronged marketing campaign if we want to attract more suburbanites onto buses. They need to be convinced that new bus lines are both bourgeois1 and safe. I might add that although Barro doesn’t highlight this particular feature, the Orange Line mentioned in the report also has “high frequencies.” That’s a key feature too, and it costs money. But it still costs less to run a high-frequency bus than an above-ground light rail system.

Maybe we need more celebrities to ride the bus. I’ll bet if George Clooney took the bus to work, it would suddenly become a lot more popular. You’d probably need to increase service to accommodate all the paparazzi, but surely that’s a small price to pay?

1I confess to some curiosity here. Did focus group participants really refer to the Orange Line as a “bourgeois bus”? That seems a bit unlikely to me.

February 8, 2015

Misallocating infrastructure spending

Filed under: Economics, Government, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Randal O’Toole on the problems with directing your infrastructure spending on the basis of ideology rather than economic efficiency:

For the past two decades or so, however, much of our transportation spending has focused on infrastructure that is slower, more expensive, less convenient, and often more dangerous than before. Too many cities have given up on trying to relieve congestion. Instead, they have allowed it to grow while they spend transportation dollars (nearly all paid by auto users) on other forms of travel such as rail transit. Such transportation is:

  • Slower: Where highway speeds even in congested cities average 35 miles per hour or more, the rail transit lines built with federal dollars mostly average 15 to 20 mph.
  • More expensive: In 2013, Americans auto users spent less than 45 cents per vehicle mile (which means, at average occupanies of 1.67 people per car, about 26 cents per passenger mile), and subsidies to roads average under a penny per passenger mile. By comparison, transit fares are also about 26 cents per passenger mile, but subsidies are 75 cents per passenger mile.
  • Less convenient: Autos can go door to door, while transit requires people to walk or use other forms of travel, often at both ends of the transit trip.
  • Less safe: For every billion passenger miles carried, urban auto accidents kill about 5 people, while light rail kills about 12 people and commuter trains kill 9. Only subways and elevateds are marginally safer than auto travel, at 4.5, but we haven’t built many of those lately.

Not surprisingly, most transit projects lead to almost no new travel. Yet their backers claim this is a virtue. They have demonized the new travel generated by the interstates by calling it “induced demand.” They have celebrated transportation projects that generate no new travel but merely get people to shift from one mode to another, usually more expensive, mode as “sustainable.”

Even when cities spend money on roads, they often spent it making travel slower, less convenient, and more dangerous. Many cities are doing various forms of what planners euphemistically called “traffic calming,” meaning narrowing streets, putting barriers in roads, and turning one-way streets into two-way streets. The overt goal is to slow down traffic, and it often has the side effect of making it more dangerous for both auto users and pedestrians.

A very simple test can determine whether any particular transportation project will be faster, cheaper, more convenient, and/or safer than before: Will the users themselves pay for it? Users will pay for real improvements in transportation; they won’t pay for slower, more expensive, less convenient, and more dangerous transportation.

January 22, 2015

The seductive appeal of the big project

Filed under: China, Railways, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

In a Forbes post from a few years back, Warren Meyer looks at the appeal of the megaproject to those inclined to think that what society really needs is someone in control:

What is it about intellectuals that seem to, generation after generation, fall in love with totalitarian regimes because of their grand and triumphal projects? Whether it was the trains running on time in Italy, or the Moscow subways, or now high-speed rail lines in China, western dupes constantly fall for the lure of the great pyramid without seeing the diversion of resources and loss of liberty that went into building it.

Writers like Thomas Friedman and Joel Epstein in the Huffington Post have eulogized China and its monumental spending projects. These are the same folks who, generations ago, tried disastrously to emulate Mussolini’s “forward-thinking” economic regime in the National Industrial Recovery Act. These are the same folks who wanted to emulate MITI’s management of the Japanese economy (which drove them right into a 20-year recession). These are the same folks who oohed and ahhed over the multi-billion dollar Beijing Olympics venues while ignoring the air that was un-breathable. These are the same folks who actually believed the one Cuban health clinic in Sicko actually represented the standard of care received by average citizens. To outsiders, the costs of these triumphal programs are often not visible, at least not until years or decades later when the rubes have moved on to new man crushes.

These writers worry that the US is somehow being left behind by China because its government builds more stuff than we do. We are “asleep.” Well, here is my retort: Most of the great progress in this country occurred when the government was asleep. The railroads, the steel industry, the auto industry, the computer industry — all were built by individuals when the government was at best uninvolved and at worst fighting their progress at every step.

In particular, both Friedman and Epstein think we need to build more high speed passenger trains. This is exactly the kind of gauzy non-fact-based wishful thinking that makes me extremely pleased that these folks do not have the dictatorial powers they long for. High speed rail is a terrible investment, a black hole for pouring away money, that has little net impact on efficiency or pollution. But rail is a powerful example because it demonstrates exactly how this bias for high-profile triumphal projects causes people to miss the obvious.

Which is this: The US rail system, unlike nearly every other system in the world, was built (mostly) by private individuals with private capital. It is operated privately, and runs without taxpayer subsidies. And, it is by far the greatest rail system in the world. It has by far the cheapest rates in the world (1/2 of China’s, 1/8 of Germany’s). But here is the real key: it is almost all freight.

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