Monday, June 20, 2011

Idle Thoughts

Idle Thought #1: In Alon Levy's latest post, he argues that international intercity links of all stripes underperform their domestic counterparts. Hence a Seattle-Vancouver link would underperform relative a Seattle-Portland one, even though Vancouver's closer. The argument is convincing.

However, he makes a point he doesn't really take up again, namely that "Eurostar’s mode share is quite normal by the standards of other HSR lines of comparable travel time". Since the market's undersized, the total ridership on the high-speed line will likewise be undersized...but the fact that London-Paris Eurostar commands an equivalent mode share (as measured by percentage of trips taken per mode used) in its market as, say, the Paris-Brussels Thalys does in its market, offers a key into how we want to do ridership projection modeling for intercity high-speed service--namely, we want to create a model which prioritizes mode-share rather than just an absolute count of riders. Knowing the size of the current travel market (in terms of total trips taken), the size of the mode share being aimed for, and the average ridership per trip, we can actually create an extremely simple and effective model for figuring out whether a particular market is profitable for high-speed rail relative to ridership. Secondly, since most rail lines are actually linked corridors, finding the mode share for each significant intercity pair, extrapolating ridership, and then adding it all up into a combined ridership (for example, the mode share of D.C.-N.Y. = mode share of D.C.-N.Y. + D.C.-Philly + D.C.-Baltimore + N.Y.-Philly + N.Y.-Baltimore + Philly-Baltimore) should create a powerful, effective mechanism for ascertaining projected ridership.

For example, let us assume the travel markets between Cities A, B, and C are all 10 million, and the mode shares for City A-City B and City B-City C are 70% rail, 20% air, and 10% road (relatively common for intra-megalopolis travel), while City A-City C is 50% rail, 40% air, and 10% road (think Tokyo-Hiroshima). 70% of 10 million is 7 million, and 50% 5 million. Hence total ridership on the line connecting Cities A and C via City B will be 7m + 7m + 5m = 19m, which, if I remember correctly, should be a rough estimate of the total ridership of the Tokyo-Osaka-Hiroshima shinkansen, or perhaps the TAV between Milan and Naples via Rome.

Idle Thought #2: In today's Sunday Train, Bruce McF mentions that "whenever a Republican passes over the opportunity to propose regulatory reform, it seems worthwhile to look at what regulatory reform might have to offer". This falls squarely into my overarching narrative of how modern Republicans (most lately under the guise of the Tea Party) are using populist-libertarian ideology to shroud and advance corporatist interests, and furthermore that the Tea Party ideology is in fact only made possible due to a now-generation-long collusion between corporate conservatives and televangelists, and that elements of televangelical* culture, such as those which create the whole astroturfed "controversy" between evolutionary theory and creationism intelligent design, demonstrate clear cultural values in anti-intellectualism and dogma acceptance...or, to put it another way, their "real world" is quite different from ours.

Anyway, sidetrack aside, "whenever a Republican passes over the opportunity to propose regulatory reform," considering that true libertarianism is always anti-regulatory in nature, this offers a clue into real motives. While the libertarian argument is that regulation is always bad, due to it detracting from the ability to do business, the progressive counterargument is that regulation, when properly done, is a sort of legal referee making sure the public get what they think they're getting when they get something. After all, we'd rather not buy a burger full of shit or poisoned rat carcasses. So, when an ostensibly anti-regulation politician passes on the chance to tackle regulatory reform head-on--and on regulation that is widely considered, across the political spectrum, to be broken, at that--to score political points in a vainglorious attempt to undermine Amtrak's political coalition, we can be sure something's going on, and the public's best interests are not being properly represented. Even the Department of Transportation's own recent FRA reform was exceedingly tepid, especially for a regulatory framework so baldly, badly broken by international standards. Someone wants the current regime to stay in place--who? A special-interest coalition, I bet, of (a) the freight railroads, (b) AASHTO, and (c) unions (who see "Buy America" as ensuring work)**. The result? A promulgation of the broken status quo.

One thing we can be rest assured of, however, is that the Tea Party and our politicians are making such a mockery out of libertarian thinking it's damaging real libertarianism (of the Market Urbanism kind) and progressivism alike.
* That is, the culture of Billy Graham-style evangelists.
** In direct contravention to the let-it-go-it'll-work style of libertarian thinking. Actually, bringing American rail regulation in line with UIC standards and eliminating Buy America will almost certainly create more jobs than it eliminates--because it allows the tools to start creating more passenger rail in a country where so much of it has been lost, and once enough potential buyers are in place, the domestic industry will follow. The current regulatory environment is very much putting the cart before the horse--no wonder it fails so hard!


  1. It's still important to know the total size of the market and not just the mode shares, because there's significant induced demand. Eurostar's annual traffic is 9.5 million, but Paris-London air traffic has only declined by about 2 million since it opened. On linked corridors, it's still pretty easy to estimate mode share vs. air - just look at the graphs my post links to and see how close everything is to the trend line. The problems are estimating the total size of the market, including induced demand, and estimating how many people will switch from highways.

    And in response to the second point, I'd say that FRA reform is a wonky issue that hasn't been connected to any mainstream political debate, and that's why Mica hasn't heard of it. We'll see what happens after he does.

  2. As to the first point: Agreed that I haven't thought of everything. My point was that it looks like there's a useful algorithmic base for ridership projection in your argument, and I was extrapolating some of what it would take to refine the math for such use. It seems very clear that in addition to what I already posted, we need to take into account (a) natural year-over-year traffic increases and (b)induced demand for rail service.

    As for your second point: probably agreed. Your latest post is the strongest, most cogent criticism of FRA regulation that I've ever seen.