Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Tony Talking Traffic

Paul Krugman complains about traffic and sprawl:
Consider the following thought experiment: you are driving on a road — let’s arbitrarily call it Interstate 91 — and must choose a lane. Traffic is so heavy that you can’t really change lanes thereafter. But there are many bad patches along the road; half of the distance can be covered at 60 miles an hour, but the other half only at 15. 
You might imagine that your average speed is halfway between 15 and 60, but a little thought shows that this isn’t true: your average speed is only 24 miles an hour. Also, the lanes aren’t perfectly correlated: sometimes your lane is going 60 while the next is going 15, sometimes it’s the reverse. Again, you might think that this means you spend equal amounts of time watching the other lane whiz by and whizzing by yourself, but not so: you spend four times as much time watching the other guys race past. 
And this creates intense frustration and anger, a sense that it’s grossly unfair that you are in the wrong lane. This sense persists even though (a) you have worked out the analysis above, and realize that in principle the lanes are equally good or bad and (b) you have in fact been playing leapfrog with the same Boltbus the whole way, so that you know that in fact neither lane is better. No matter; you are angry, frazzled, and late for your family event. (Which you make up for by having a good time, and drinking enough wine that it’s past 9 when you realize that you didn’t post Friday Night Music). 
But it’s a good thing I didn’t ride the train (which for complicated reasons wasn’t an option); after all, that would have diminished my individualism.
Having grown up in Montana (rural), moved to Chicago (urban), and now, moved to Colorado (mixed), I can understand both sides of this debate.

On one hand, the rural side of me knows that it is impossible to find a convenient bus or train route between any two "major" towns in Montana.  For example, if you want to pick up grandma from Billings on your way to see the parents in Helena, and then just send grandma back on a bus or train, here are your options: (a) drive her back - a 3.5 hour journey each way, (b) drive her to Butte and have her take the Greyhound bus - 1 hour of driving each way, a 5 hour bus ride for grandma, (c) no train options available unless you know the conductor on some commercial train, (d) put grandma on a "one-way" flight to Billings, where she'll have to change planes in Denver or Seattle, time in transit ~ 7 hours.

Each of these choices (plane, car, and bus) involve around the same amount of travel time, and none are convenient, but a road trip would actually give us more options.  For example, we could stop for lunch along the way while the closest thing to that on the plane is the complimentary biscotti, and I don't even want to know what's happening on the bus.  I think this is precisely the type of tradeoff that George Will has in mind (and Paul Krugman ridicules).  When it comes to traveling town-to-town, you don't want to be stuck taking the bus or train.  This is a tradeoff that rural Americans (who have few shared town-to-town transit options) understand, but urban Americans take for granted.

Why is the nearest bus in Butte (60 miles away from Helena)?   The route from Helena to Billings was shut down for safety concerns, but it really comes down to profitability.  What about the plane route?  Why are there no direct flights?  There used to be a direct flight, but the airline that offered that flight pulled the plug due to lack of demand.
Even $20,000 to $25,000 in financial help from Helena’s airport failed to tip the flights into profitability, Mercer said. “We were giving them free landing fees, mostly free rent, we spent about $10,000 on marketing and supplemented the costs of ground handling,” he said.
It simply isn't profitable to offer these transportation options in rural areas.

On the other hand, the urban side of me gets Krugman's point.  There is nothing that will suck the life out of you more than being stuck on a truly congested Interstate.  Even worse, if you're driving, you have to pay attention.  If you're taking the train, you avoid the congestion and you can open your laptop to do some work.  It might take the same amount of time to go by train or by car, but train-goers will arrive rested and productive while car-goers will be frazzled.

For certain regions of our country (connected only by congested pipelines, or frequent and harried plane routes), train transit and high-speed rail make a lot of sense.  And, expanding the range of shared-ride options would create value in terms of reduced congestion and happier travelers.  That said, none of these regions are in Montana, so I can understand why people with a rural mindset tend to recoil at the thought of expanding these options (with which they have little experience).

The problem, I think, is that not everyone has a full appreciation for the rural advantages of individualized transit at the same time as having a full appreciation for the urban advantages of shared transit options.  In the end, the debate over sensible public transit options ends up having the tone of ridicule (or condescension) because neither side really understands the other side's perspective.  And, that's a shame because this is a case where both sides have something reasonable to bring to the table.


  1. "Even worse, if you're driving, you have to pay attention."

    Ugh. This is definitely the worst thing about driving.

  2. Indeed, one could say that individualized travel (e.g. car) is definitely the best if it's not impeded in any way (e.g. by traffic jams). Once it is, public transport can help push travel times and frustration down.

    Clearly, in rural areas individualized travel is not impeded in any way whereas in urban areas it is.

    On the other hand, we did use to have public transportation even in the West (see for instance https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pacific_Electric), but they disappeared for one reason or another. (Here is one potential explanation: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_American_streetcar_scandal)


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