Denver in 2020…

Mar 13th, 2010
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Denver’s ambition is laudable. Their Regional Transportation District (RTD) wanted to do it all at once…and in the last gasps of the boom economy they passed a measure, Fastracks, to extend rail transit in exclusive rights-of-way to all corners of the metro area (well, except Brighton). Well their initial $4.7Billion budget went to hell. The recession hit, sales tax revenues dropped, construction costs rose sharply (because of perfectly understandable Chinese demand for steel, etc…), and for a while in 2007/2008 the dollar fell against other major currencies. Two predictable groups went batshit crazy: the libertarian folks out at the Independence Institute and the Colorado Springs-types whose vision of anti-civic paradise is a city without street lights and libraries.

But calm down people, budgets are forecasts, we should expect them to be unreliable, and at the very least we should expect them to mirror developments in the larger economy. In other words, RTD’s structural budget problems aren’t unique in the slightest, and in fact are shared by every major wealthy democracy and by almost all capital projects planned within the past 10 years. RTD should only shoulder blame for not financing with rainy-day reserves in mind, not for the deficits themselves.

So this post is just a reminder to the good folks of Denver, Jefferson County, Douglas County, Boulder County, Adams County, and Arapahoe County. A vote for tax money is coming…for a modest sales tax increase (probably 4/10%, or 4 cents for every $10), this is what you could still have in 2020:

(Image Copyright Zach Shaner 2009, Rights Reserved)

You need to understand, Denver, just much of a bargain $8 Billion is for 120 miles of rail.
Seattle is spending $2 Billion for just two stations! You are blessed with friendly topography (flat, dusty plains), lots of buildable space, endless development opportunities, and a healthy fixed demand for transit to both downtown and (crucially) NON-DOWNTOWN locales (The Federal Center, The University of Colorado, Denver Int’l Airport, Denver Tech Center, Olde Town Arvada, Littleton-Downtown). Union Station will be revived as a gorgeous and glorious civic hub. Inner neighborhoods such as the Highlands will be revived. You alone will be THE regional leader in commuter rail and urban transport. You can kiss sporting-event-related traffic jams goodbye.

So please, when the vote comes this November, VOTE YES!

[Then we can all get on to building even more lines, to Cherry Creek, all the way down Colfax, and even more! =) ]


A Junior High Math Lesson: Low-Hanging Fruit, Diminishing Returns, Amtrak, and Hummers

Mar 9th, 2010

A quick pop quiz: Suppose Toyota comes out with a hybrid capable of 200 miles per gallon; given that it’s almost spring, let’s call it the Toyota Sakura. Suppose you currently own two cars, a Hummer (10mpg) and a Corolla (30mpg).

Which would save more gas? To:
(1. To trade the Hummer for another Corolla
(2. To trade the Corolla you already have for the Sakura


If you answered #2 intuitively, you are wrong. Over a typical 20,000 mile year, the Hummer would use 2,000 gallons, the Corolla would use 667, and the Sakura would use 100. So choosing Option 1 saves 2.5 times more – 1,333 gallons! – while choosing Option 2 saves a mere 567 gallons.

And another, which is better? To:
(1. Improve 45mph Amtrak service to current industry standard 79mph
(2. Improve existing Amtrak 79 mph service to Europe-standard 220mph?


Again, in terms of improved travel time, #1 is the clear winner. On a 500-mile trip, a 45mph train such as the Coast Starlight would take 11 hours. Improving it to 79 mph would reduce it to 6 hours, while 220mph service would result in a breezy 2 hours 15 minutes. Option #1 saves 5 hours, while #2 saves a further 2.5 hours.

Obviously, in an ideal world, we’d already be in a position to make the latter choice, for we already would have transcended the inefficient silliness of Hummers and the indignities of grinding down freight railroads at Vespa-like speeds. But we clearly have not, and too often we’re left with either/or questions. Our policy debates often center around the fundamental question of process: should we opt for bottom-up, generalized incrementalism (#1) or top-down, focused revolution (#2)?

With rail, we have been choosing revolution, mostly because it’s good politics. The shiny new bullet train between Tampa and Orlando will be a flashy, tangible victory for “Amtrak Joe” Biden and Barack Obama. Yet meanwhile much of Amtrak will languish in Slow-ville. Likewise, with cars, the high end of MPG keeps getting higher, but we’re doing very little to stop the sale or manufacture of low-mileage vehicles.

The point of this post is that, if forced to choose, we should ALWAYS take Door #1.
It often amazes me how the simplest rational functions – the ones we were taught as high school freshman on our trusty TI-83s – elude us when thinking about common sense policy questions. The function in question here is f(x)=1/x. In this function, like in the two examples above, the first steps away from zero are the most dramatic, and each additional step produces diminishing returns.

With such exponential improvement so easily attainable – talk about low-hanging fruit! – you’d think that bottom-up improvement would be the basis of public policy. We all need faster trains and more efficient cars, and that would be better than just a few of us having the fastest trains the most efficient cars. Yet just as Presidents love pep-rally soundbites and congressmen love a good meal of flashy pork, so we all prefer the sensational to the pragmatic. Much to our detriment.


A Modest Wish-List for Amtrak

Mar 2nd, 2010

Amtrak has been frequently in the news lately, as $8 billion will be spent on high-speed rail projects such as a 150mph service between Tampa and Orlando, 3C-Corridor service between Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati, and extra trains between Seattle and Portland, to name a few. (It’s worth remembering just how small $8 Billion for a national rail system is…In Seattle alone, the combined cost of replacing the 520 Bridge and the Alaskan Way viaduct with a tunnel is $8.9 Billion.) While Amtrak serves 500 stations and performs a generally decent service, the high-speed rail push has largely drowned out and overpowered the most pressing need: more routes at better frequencies.

In intercity rail, passengers have a hierarchy of need.
(1. Cost
(2. Frequency
(3. Reliability
(4. Speed

Cost is ok: Amtrak fares have always been cost-competitive, partially due to subsidies guaranteeing their operation whatever their fare recovery ratio. But my fear is that we’re obsessed with speed at the expense of frequency and reliability. Most services in the West and South run either once-daily, or thrice-weekly, if there is service at all; and ridership density drops off dramatically at these levels of service. For each 48-hour Sunset Limited between New Orleans and Los Angeles, that same trainset could provide 8 one-way trips between Cleveland and Cincinnati, 6 one-ways between Seattle and Spokane, or 24 one-ways between Denver and Colorado Springs. Which do you think would make more money? Keep in mind that during this 48-hour period, labor and fuel costs would be more or less fixed. Money is made by increasing the sheer density of passenger turnover (throughput). While corridor investments figure heavily in the stimulus funding, little has been said about connecting the missing corridors that would make Amtrak truly a national system.

A very incomplete list of potential short to medium size corridors currently without ANY rail service AND no future funding:

*SAGUARO: Tucson-Phoenix-Flagstaff
*MOJAVE: Las Vegas-Los Angeles
*FRONT RANGE: Albuquerque-Colorado Springs-Denver
*MAGIC VALLEY: Salt Lake City-Boise
*TENNESSEAN: Memphis-Nashville
*LONE STAR: Dallas-Houston
*QUEBECOIS: Boston-Montreal
*FLORIDIAN: Jacksonville-Atlanta-Nashville-Louisville-Chicago

Clearly, many miles to go before we sleep.


An Open Letter to Republicans: Learn to Like Obama, You'll Soon Need Him

Mar 2nd, 2010
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At the current rate of Democratic decline, come November we may be ‘treated’ to a Republican-majority Senate, and evenly split House, and Obama. Incompetent Democratic leadership, general dissatisfaction over a lingering recession that would hurt any party in power, and a wave of intellectually incoherent, pseudo-populist Tea Party hysteria are all equally to blame. Without a plausible Republican challenger for 2012 (yet) , it seems likely to me that we may have a Republican Congress and a Democratic White House through 2016.

Obama’s election and a Democratic supermajority have until now completely relieved Republicans of any responsibility of leadership. Coherence no longer required, their bloviations have become ever more infantile without much negative consequence, as support has rallied to them by default, just as it did to Democrats in 2006. So while obstruction style, party-of-no posturing is political gold for Republicans until November, soon after they win some elections they’ll actually have to start doing things. The last thing they’ll want to do is pass a bunch of red-meat legislation only to be thwarted by Obama’s veto pen. For the first time in two years, they’ll actually care about making the country better.

I suggest that their first priority should be to realize that Obama can be more of an ally than they ever imagined. Republican rhetoric vis-a-vis Obama has oscillated wildly between two extremes: (1. A populist critique, borrowed from the ghosts of Democrats past, of his decidely right-wing style corporate welfare/bailout policy, and (2. The wild-eyed, he’s-a-socialist-fascist-out-to-destroy-this-country schtick popular with the Tea Party crazies. I humbly suggest that Republicans need to narrow the scope but increase the intensity of their criticisms. Obama is a Clinton-style Democrat, a man of principled ends and malleable means. So for the love of God, give up the radical rhetoric:

    A very short reality-check for Republicans:

Gun Control
Rhetoric: He’ll take away our guns! Buy now to defend yourselves!

Reality: Thus far, Obama has been friendly toward the gun lobby. Guns are now allowed on Amtrak and in National Parks, several states are expanding concealed carry laws, and there has been no pushback from the White House. Yet reflexive rhetoric has not accepted this new reality, as witnessed by NRA’s Wayne LaPierre,

“We have had some successes, but we know that the first chance Obama gets, he will pounce on us.”

Rhetoric: Obama is a weak-kneed wuss who can’t admit we’re at war! The country’s never been in more danger!

Reality: Trigger-happy Obama has ordered dozens of assassinations and has radically increased strikes on Al-Qaeda sites in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Some Republicans are now complaining he’s killing too many terrorists.

Gay Rights
Rhetoric: He’s only saying he’s against gay marriage to get elected! Once in the White House, it’ll be all-gay-all-the-time! Compulsory gay education! Condom bananas for 1st graders!

Reality: He has devastated gay rights supporters by his continued refusal to endorse gay marriage. While he’s likely liberal on the issue, it’s clearly an expendable bargaining chip. His official push to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell” has been made only after the consent of top military brass.

Fiscal and Monetary Policy
Rhetoric: Buy gold! The currency will collapse! Reckless spending means hyperinflation is coming!

Reality: While the spending has been sloppy, we’re not at dangerous ratios of debt/GDP, China can’t let our dollar weaken without weakening themselves, and the Euro is melting under the weight of Greece and Spain. There is no serious threat to our status as reserve currency, and this alone will maintain its value for now (though not forever). Interest rates are still near zero, and raising them would quickly and efficiently dampen inflation. High spending is the right policy right now.
The point of all this is that pragmatism is lonely, as Clive Crook has said,

Sadly for the president, the left objects to his pragmatism more than it applauds his ambitions, and the centre and right object to his ambitions more than they welcome his pragmatism.

Republicans and Obama will need each other to pass legislation. Obama’s a sensible guy, a tough negotiator, a coherent intellectual force, and despite the intractability of our national political problems, he’s a good President. Republicans, you’ll need him.


The Meaning of Health Insurance

Feb 22nd, 2010

Last year I got a rather large and painful cyst on my neck. Since I didn’t have health insurance, I went to a Seattle walk-in clinic to get it checked out. The fee for the 10-minute appointment was $250. When I told them I didn’t have insurance and asked if I could pay cash, they instantly dropped the fee to $99.

This got me thinking. Throughout our depressing health care debate over the past year, I find it curious that no one has really asked, “What, at a fundamental level, is the nature of insurance and the scope of its proper function?” Both sides seem to take it for granted that any and all medical services rendered should be paid for through an insurance scheme of some sort. But it’s curious that we don’t do this for any other sector of the economy! We purchase car insurance for protection against accidents, but we don’t make a claim when we need a new car, and we don’t call our broker when we need an oil change.

What exactly is insurance, and what should it be for? Isn’t it something purchased with ordinary income to hedge against extraordinary expense? Something purchased to allow the ubiquity of the ordinary (everyday healthy life) to overwhelm the occasional extraordinary (illness) by spreading risk across a pool of persons? Why the hell should all health care fall under that regime? Surely basic services – checkups, prescriptions, blood work, chiropractic, physical therapy, etc – can be rendered competitively on a strict fee-for-service basis?

Thus I tentatively favor a two-tiered health care system. For hospitalizations, chronic and debilitating illness, surgery, and emergency care, etc…I favor a nationalized, single risk pool, single-payer system in which citizens are covered by virtue of their citizenship and where public taxes pay private health care providers for services. It is a matter of human rights that ability-to-pay not determine access to life-saving or long-term care. But for more basic, everyday care, why not forego the administrative nightmares of insurance entirely? Why not, as I did last autumn, just pay up front and save big?


The Future of Vancouver Transit

Feb 20th, 2010

Being up here during the Olympics has been fantastic. While the foreign (especially British) media has exploded with apoplectic indignation about the Games’ shortcomings, they are correct in one respect: Canada has acquired an annoying swagger. Their ads rave about how their city and province is truly, wonderfully, “The Best Place on Earth.” Who could blame the defensive Brits, bristling at the BC forests while their tired little island remains saturated with grass and sheep? Prideful though they are, I just might have to agree with the sentiment. This is a pretty wonderful place. Maybe the shock at Vancouver’s not-so-sudden hubris derives from the expectation to encounter a stereotypically Canadian reserve humility and politeness, so rather than a cute-metrosexual-Godspell-esque “We can build, a beautiful city, YES we can!”, we’re slightly embarrassed for them at their sudden We-Will-Rock-Youness.

But the best part of the Games so far for me has been mobility. Cars are off the streets, pedestrians rule on Granville and Robson streets, buses and subways are packed, and people are happy about it. It’s amazing.

Which got me thinking…I’ve long been into fantasy maps, I’m increasingly drawn to local politics, and the future of Vancouver’s innovative but very expensive train system is a highly controversial topic:

Here’s my (completely self-drawn) wish-list for Vancouver’s 2050 transit…

Some personal thoughts:

(1. UBC must be served by rail. Over 100,000 trips are already made daily along Broadway from Commercial Drive to UBC. The primary bus, the 99 B-Line, is an arterial diesel express bus that I’ve stopped riding as I’ve never gotten a seat. It’s crowded, slow, and generally a miserable experience. I now take the local services, the 9 and 17, and sit down with my book thank-you-very-much. The debate rests on whether or not to extend the Millenium Line from Vancouver Community College under Broadway as a driverless, Skytrain-esque subway, OR to build surface light rail down the length of Broadway. I personally think we’ll see a deep-bored, underground Skytrain, but not until late in the 2020s as it will be an ugly fight. But surface could just never work, for the following reasons…

– 30+ at-grade crossings.
- No significant reduction in trip time over the current bus
- Inability to run at the high frequencies that driverless technology allows
- Losing at least 2 general purpose lanes on a street HALF the width of Seattle’s recently light-railed MLK Way
- Cut-and-cover is political poison after Cambie Street’s experience with the Canada Line

For all these reasons and more, eventually the priciest option will prevail.

(2. The old Canadian Pacific line along Arbutus would work very nicely as light rail, connecting to the Broadway subway and the Canada Line at Olympic Village Station.

(3. 4th Avenue between Cambie and Alma is nearly as busy and dense as Broadway, and a 4th Avenue Tram would greatly complement the Broadway service and remove redundancies from the system. For example, west of Alma on 4th Avenue is mostly single-family homes and a military barracks, and most people busing through there boarded east of Alma and alight at UBC.

(4. While the Evergreen Line should be built as planned, Expo Line extensions into Langley make less sense. I’ve long thought that beyond about 20mi/30km, even efficient systems such as SkyTrain become less attractive and time-competitive. All things being equal, resources should be spent making dense corridors livable, rather than enabling lengthy peak-period radial commutes.



Gold, Guns, and God: Thoughts on Hyperinflationary Fearmongering

Feb 16th, 2010
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Most people, myself included, occasionally adhere to two conflicting ideas simultaneously. But after reading an article in the New York Times today about my beautiful yet sometimes intellectually stunted hometown, I needed to comment on one recurring theme: the supposedly imminent currency collapse.
Uncle Sam's Saw
My teabagger friends on Facebook often post about the guns they’re buying or the gold they’re investing in, ostensibly because the fiscal apocalypse is upon us due to Obama’s inflationary policies. I find it strange that alongside the breathless declarations that we’re soon to be just like Venezuela or Zimbabwe is simultaneous frustration at the fall in house values, retirement accounts, and salaries/wages– decidedly deflationary phenomena. Inflationary policies are designed primarily to reduce the burden of debt by increasing the money supply and accordingly boost consumer spending, and though they are clumsy they generally work in the short term. More jobs are out there, services are sustained during recessions, etc… Without such ‘stimulus’, deflation radically increases the burden of debt as variable values fall (i.e. home value) while related obligations (i.e. mortgage payments) remain fixed. Inflation may be a menace, but deflation is an even bigger monster. Right now the United States is issuing record debt, has a zero interest rate, and is practically BEGGING for inflation, and it hasn’t come. When it does, the Fed has ample room (i.e. the 20% interest rates of the 1970s) to stamp it out.

Additionally, hyperinflation can’t happen in a vacuum. If we were the lone nation struggling, our inflationary future would indeed be grim. But hyperinflation requires reevaluation relative to another currency of purported strength. Our weakness has to be exploited by another’s strength. So who then will cause the irrevocable slide of the dollar and hasten the survivalist epoch for which many libertarians (secretly) pine?


(1. The Euro? Hardly. Monetary union in Europe is becoming a disaster, with strong and competent economies (France, Germany) being hung by the weight of their more reckless neighbors. Greece combines corruption with some of the world’s highest debt relative to GDP. Spain’s housing boom was epic compared to ours, and unemployment is hovering at 20%. Ireland (hitherto “The Celtic Tiger”) had a tech and housing boom that couldn’t be sustained. These Euro states will continue to need bailouts from their more responsible neighbors, and thus in the near term the Euro will not bring about the downfall of the dollar.


(2. The Pound? The UK is too small, has its own high deficits and debt, and large social obligations.


(3. The Yen? Too small, and while it will continue to strengthen against the dollar, the implications aren’t really that dire.


(4. The Yuan? This is the one to worry about. China’s budgetary surpluses are enormous and their currency has been held artificially low (pegged to the dollar) for quite some time to keep their exports cheap, their wages low, their consumption low, their growth rate and competitiveness high, and their budget surpluses rolling in. The world is begging China to strengthen the Yuan and join the ranks of the rich consuming world, and if they do then inflation will come. But China is deeply trapped. A huge proportion of their foreign reserves are U.S. debt, so allowing their currency to strengthen and causing ours to weaken potentially devastates their return on investment. In other words, they have no interest in seeing us fail and (for now) won’t allow it. And a modest decline of the dollar against the Yuan would actually bring more jobs to America, as it would reduce Chinese competitiveness.

In other words, as ailments go, inflation is the chronic condition to be managed with care, but deflation is the acute sickness to be immediately remedied. So for the time being massive government spending is sensible. Now, if only Congress were better at spending it wisely…but that’s hoping for too much from petulant toddlers, now isn’t it?


Climate Change: Part 1: Models, Uncertainty, and Silly Politics

Feb 16th, 2010
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After the silliness of the past few weeks, I feel compelled to weigh in on the science and politics of climate change.  Lately we’ve seen serious breaches of professional ethics, embarrassing retractions from the IPCC, and an epic snowstorm that delighted skeptics., among other things. 

Epic Snowstorm

The intellectual level of our public debate is depressing enough, but the unecessary invective and collective illogic that permeates this issue in the United States is truly embarrassing.  The critiques below apply equally to the ignorant GreenPeace canvasser harrassing you for money to ‘save the planet,’ to the Hannity-esque blowhards who rejoice every time it gets cold, and to the professional scientific community that has radically failed to teach the public just what climate science does, and more importantly what it doesn’t.

Observation 1:  Our predictive faculties are epistemologically distinct from our explanatory faculties. 

The former is prone to massive error while the latter can be more solidly specified.  We can confidently and deductively affirm a physical process ­– the insulating properties of CO2, methane, etc… – and logically infer that, all things being equal, an unabated growth in their atmospheric concentrations will have an aggregate warming effect.  Yet this is epistemologically unrelated to predictions about specific weather patterns, and the gap between the two kinds of knowledge is enormous.  The predictions that garner so much press are the weakest parts of the science.  They are  inductive, anecdotal claims using idealized (i.e., necessarily false) models of global climate.  So here’s the catch:  the science is solid, AND the predictions will always be wrong; and the frustrating irony is that the closer one looks (i.e. the more detailed your model becomes) the worse the predictions get.  Yet none of this failure does anything to deny that the aggregate phenomenon is indeed taking place at the specified level of analysis:  global climate. 

Observation 2: Causality can only be inferred probabilistically. No single occurrence (heat wave OR cold snap!) validates any general inductive theory.

Thus at any given time we can only generalize about the impact an aggregate phenomenon – increased concentrations of CO2 – will have on any particular place and time.  So liberals, please!, enough already with the “Hurricane Katrina, the California drought, etc… were caused by global warming” shtick.  You’re wrong.  Conservatives, please!, enough already with building snowmen at the White House to claim that climate change isn’t real.  You’re wrong.   Such statements are not, and cannot be, causally true.  All you have, on both sides, is the false correlation of isolated events to fit a large causal pattern.   Reasonably sure of the long-term trajectory, the localized effects (positive and negative) will be dramas we cannot predict and will simply have to watch unfold.  David Hume, where are you when we need you?