Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Arlington One-Stop Shopping for Election Information

I got my absentee ballot in the mail, filled it out, got my wife to witness, and mailed it.  For Arlington residents, there are some additional ballot questions beyond President, Senator, Congressman, County Board, and School Board.  There is a ballot question to start an Arlington County Housing Authority, and four bond referenda:  $10M for "Metro" (let's assume they mean WMATA), $10.8M for "Community Infrastructure", $50M for "Utilities", and $99.425M for "Arlington Public Schools".

I found the Arlington County website on the matter.  They have a PDF explaining the bond referenda.

The Democratic endorsements are Obama/Biden, Mark Warner, Jim Moran, Barbara Favola, Libby Garvey and Emma Violand-Sanchez.  The Democratic Party passed resolutions in support of the bond referenda and against the housing authority ballot question.

I did not find any Republican Party resolutions about the bond issues or the housing authority ballot question after looking at their site, the endorsements for national ballot candidacies (McCain/Palin, Jim Gilmore, Mark Ellmore) are here.  The GOP is not running or endorsing any candidates for local election.

The Arlington Green Party is endorsing the housing authority ballot question, and running a candidate for County Board.

Metrobus 70/71 Ridership Data

Note:  This is before the Georgia Ave line had express service started with the 79 route.


View Larger Map

Metro Extra 79 Ridership Data

Here's a Google Map I created from data I obtained from WMATA for the new Route 79 Georgia Ave Metro Extra Line:


View Larger Map

This line runs weekday rush hours only.

Monday, September 29, 2008

WMATA's 10 Year, $11B Capital Plan

Last week, WMATA announced over $11B in capital improvement spending needs. Where would the money be spent? I found a staff report (PDF) before the Planning, Development and Real Estate Committee of the Board that laid out what WMATA is proposing for capital needs.

WMATA breaks it out into three categories:

  1. Performance Focus - What do we need to keep the system running the way it is now?
  2. Demand Focus - What do we need to meet the demands of increased ridership?
  3. Customer Focus - What should we do to improve the customer experience?

Performance Focus

The highest priority funding is in the "Performance Focus" category, since that funding is what will keep the system from degrading. The major categories and examples of spending are:

  • Vehicles - replacing and rehabilitating old railcars that have reached end of design life, and replacing buses that have reached end of design life
  • Systems and technology - rehabilitating power systems and automatic train control systems that have reached end of design life
  • Maintenance and other facilities - replacing old bus garages and rail maintenance facilities
  • Track and structures - replacing and refurbishing rails and platforms
  • Passenger facilities - Rebuilding or refurbishing escalators, elevators, parking lots

Demand Focus

The next highest priority is ensuring that increased passenger demand does not cause congestion or overburden the system. Major categories and examples are:

  • Vehicles - Purchase enough railcars to run 8-car service during rush hours, increase bus fleet by over 300 vehicles
  • Maintenance and facilities - Build maintenance and storage facilities for the new vehicles
  • Passenger facilities - Core station capacity enhancements, Build pedestrian tunnels for transfers between the Farragut Square stations and Metro Center/Gallery Place stations
  • Systems and Technology - Electric rail power upgrades necessary to run a significant number of 8-car trains, new farecard machines

Customer Focus

Unfortunately, the last priority items are the upgrades to the customer experience that get most people excited. Here are some highlights:

  • Passenger Facilities - Above ground stations would get canopies for the entire platform length, more stations would have entrance canopies
  • Safety and Security - "MTPD Priorities" (bus cameras, etc.), better station lighting, better direction finding signage at stations
  • Systems and Technology - Disposable Smartrip cards, EZ Pass at parking lots, more Smartrip dispenser machines, new web page
  • Maintenance and Other Facilities - Test track and commissioning facility (for all the new railcars and buses we'll be buying, hopefully)

Summary/Comment

If WMATA doesn't get at least $6-7 billion over the next 10 years for capital needs, we're going to be in some serious hurt. There is not much from the Performance Focus category that can be easily cut, and the items that appear borderline (to me) could probably be justified if I had access to more detail.

Even if we fund everything from Performance Focus, increased system load will be nearly unbearable for passengers. Everything from Demand Focus is necessary to meet the increased ridership. We're going to need more railcars, buses, maintenance facilities, electric power systems, and ways to get passengers around the bottlenecks to relieve congestion.

It's a shame that after we fund the first two categories, the sources of funding will likely be completely tapped out, because there are some exciting things in the Customer Focus category. Out of this category, my favorites would be disposable Smartrip cards, Enterprise GIS (better geographic data recording and reporting), and the webpage upgrade (though I question what WMATA is proposing for $32 million for a new "Web Portal").

Last time we went through this, we ended up funding $1.5 billion over 6 years, or about a third of the bare minimum under this plan. This time, if we don't get to at least $6-7 billion, the system will suffer.

All graphics based on data found in the WMATA report, and are released under Creative Commons License, attribution required, no commercial use.

Metrorail Breaks Down Twice as Often as NYC's Worst Line

WMATA posts its service interruptions daily. They also report monthly (PDF) to the Customer Service, Operations, and Safety Committee of the WMATA Board.

I compiled the Metrorail service interruption data for May 2008. My method and categories are described below. The coded data is available here, and the spreadsheet is available here. For a full discussion, see this document.  WMATA has stated that the information in this post is being reviewed for comment.
 
Without further adieu, the data:
 
Miles traveled between failures (more is better):
 
How does Metrorail compare to other transit systems?  The data in the figure above is from the NYC Straphangers campaign (PDF).  Based on some rough figures (6 car trains, 12 mile commute each way, 240 days per year, each delay affecting 2-3 trains in addition to the actual failed one), this means an average WMATA rider could expect to be on a train that is delayed 10 minutes or more three times per year. Compare that to NYC, where it should only happen once or twice per year on the worst line, and less than once per year on the average line.
 
Looking at it another way, the delayed or out of service trains are only 0.6% of all trains. But this means that you're likely to be delayed in one out of every 180 trips or so, or for the average commuter, about every 4-5 months. When a train is delayed, other trains in the system are also delayed, depending on the severity of the problem. If you assume that three or four other trains are adversely affected, then passengers might expect to experience one delay per month.
 
I think this reflects the kind of service I've experienced. I haven't experienced these kinds of delays in other heavy rail systems, but I will grant you that I ride about 200-300 times more trips on Metrorail than all other rail systems combined.
 
My brother rides BART for his daily commute and does not remember being offloaded ever. My conclusion is that Metrorail probably suffers from higher than typical service interruptions, based on data publicly available from WMATA's website. Hopefully, I will obtain data for other systems for comparison purposes. I'm not trying to be overly critical of WMATA operations here, they operate a lot of trains and most (92% [PDF]) of them are on time. My commute is affected only on an occasional basis, but it still seems like it's more often than in other systems with which I have experience.
 
This data is important to the debate about WMATA capital funding (PDF). On the one hand, the lack of capital funding could be contributing to decreased system reliability. On the other hand, system problems run the risk of being perceived as the fault of mismanagement or waste and could make it harder to obtain additional funds.
I have also requested similar service information from MARTA and BART, of Atlanta and San Francisco, respectively. Those two systems, while smaller (in ridership and track mileage), operate similar equipment of similar age.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Welcome DCist Readers

I didn't know I was going to have "company", so unfortunately the front page posts are not my best work right now.  Go ahead and click on one of my "greatest hits" to the right ---> and it'll be better material than how I'm drinking tonight for the debates.  Also, the "WMATA", "SMARTRIP" and "PARKING" labels.

Cheers!

Debate Tonight - My "Drink Words"

As with most political items on TV, I watch while playing a drinking game.

For tonight's presidential debates at 9pm EDT, my drink words will be:

For Barack Obama, "Responsible" or its related words.

For John McCain, "Extremist" or its related words.

Hopefully this will strike the right balance between the Republican National Convention's disaster where McCain did not say, "My Friends" at all, and "You've run out of beer!"

Peak Oil and Peak Music?

Going back to Infosnack's mission statement of finding interesting data and commenting on it, here's a great graph.  Correlation does not imply causation, or does it?  Did the decline in US lower 48 oil production really cause a decline in the quality of rock music?

Hat tip to Overthinking It, the blog that takes pop culture and then analyzes the crap out of it.  They've got a great write-up over there about how the Rolling Stone top 500 list tends to reward early music rather than the best in the genre.  He cites Green Day's Dookie as an example.  Now, I like me some Dookie, but compared to most of the stuff on the list I would say the list has it right.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

DC's University Students Working on Discount

I picked up this item from a feed.  Looks like Georgetown and other university students in the area have been lobbying for some sort of discounted Metro fare scheme.

The discount would likely be funded by the member university, either through a student activities fee or with a direct payment to WMATA.  From the article:
“Metro has informed us that they must sell their farecards at face-value, so a campus could put part of the cost in their student activities fee, and then the school can give that money to WMATA. Or another option would be for the schools to just pay WMATA,” she said, adding that this is how D.C. Public Schools provide for the K-12 Metro discount.
My opinion is that WMATA should look into some sort of Ecopass program, where the university agrees to pay some large but discounted fee per student, and then all students get unlimited use.  It has the potential to be beneficial for the universities, since the price is generally cheaper per student than actually buying everyone passes, and not every student is going to ride transit enough to cause much of a financial problem for WMATA.

It's kind of like an insurance program, where the university is insuring its students against the risk of needing a lot of public transit.  Because not everyone ends up using public transit, the price paid per student is less.  The kind of discount I'm talking about is on the order of paying $50 per student per month for transit passes worth $200.  

Other cities have this program for businesses and students.  See Santa Clara County's VTA Ecopass program.  The example I priced out was for a business of 1000 employees in downtown San Jose.  The business would pay $90,000 to VTA, or $90 per employee, and in exchange all employees would receive an unlimited VTA ride pass worth over $1300.  VTA doesn't expect more than 7% of employees to ride transit, so they end up recouping their costs.  For Washington, DC, I think the expected transit use would be higher, so the discount would not be as steep.

The benefit to the University may be reduced parking pressure, higher student quality of life, etc.  The benefit to WMATA might be a predictable revenue source, higher ridership, and getting an additional population familiar with the transit system.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

WMATA Answers Smartrip Questions

Candace Smith of WMATA's Office of Media Relations got back to me with the answers to some of the SmarTrip questions asked here and on Greater Greater Washington.

WMATA's general statement about SmarTrip development:
Right now, the Authority's [WMATA] top SmarTrip priorities are to deliver SmarTrip improvements, which include acceptance of rail and bus passes; the ability to add money on the cards in sales outlets, and the ability to automatically add money to the cards if they dip below a certain limit, like an EZ pass. Metro cardholders will be able to add money to their cards at area commuter stores, bus garages that have sales offices, and a select number of Giant stores beginning this fall. The other features are expected to be available by 2010. Metro is currently renegotiating contracts with its SmarTrip contractors. The office has also recently been reorganized and given additional resources to speed up implementation of SmarTrip benefits. Metro will alert customers to SmarTrip benefits through its website, advertising, news releases, sales offices and other community outreach efforts.
Other questions answered by WMATA:

Will SmarTrip be integrated with the DC driver's license? Who's in charge of that project?

DC is leading the effort of integrating SmarTrip technology with driver's licenses.

Could Smartrip be programmed to allow customers to exit from the same station they entered for free (for example, if significant delays are encountered)?

Metro has a policy where if there is a major delay customers will not be charged if they exit the same rail system they entered during the delay.

Will there be a paper SmarTrip or a low-cost disposable card?

Metro is currently researching disposable SmarTrip cards.

WMATA had discussed in the past the "Fair Fare" system, where daily usage would be capped at the day pass rate. Is this an option?

We currently have no plans for "Fair Fare".


Is there a way to submit a request for a replacement card online?

We hope to eventually have the option to get a replacement card online.

Will customers need to replace their SmarTrip cards for feature upgrades?

Customers do not need to replace their cards for future upgrades.

The questions about other agencies accepting SmarTrip, such as Maryland's MTA, DC Smartbike and Zipcar were directed at the other agency. Apparently accepting SmarTrip at those agencies is not really something WMATA gets involved in. According to WMATA, "The regional SmarTrip effort allows each entity to determine its own fare policy".

WMATA didn't offer any answer for questions involving other SmarTrip form factors like keychains, and didn't comment on whether users could modify SmarTrip cards by disassembling them and incorporating them into other objects like clothing.

WMATA didn't answer questions regarding adding value online, transfers from bus to rail, integrating the SmarTrip and EZ pass accounts, any upcoming changes to the fare structure based on implementing passes, or any ridership loss or gain associated with implementing new SmarTrip features.

Thanks to WMATA's Office of Media Relations for getting back to me on my questions.

Metro Center Advertising - Front Groups

On my way to the Capital Criterium last Sunday, I noticed a strange theme to the advertising in Metro Center Station.  All the ads seemed to have some sort of pro-big-business slant to them.  Here are the ads I saw:

I saw others, including a public service ad for mercury (it's not as bad as you think!) as well as one that seemed to be implying that drunk driving laws weren't all that important (fatigue causes more accidents!).  I knew something had to be up because all the ads were related, and I knew WMATA has a program to blanket purchase an entire station at once.  Who's responsible for this?

These guys:

According to Sourcewatch, a non-partisan wiki run by the Center for Media and Democracy:

Berman & Co., a Washington, DC public affairs firm owned by lobbyist Rick Berman, represents the tobacco industry as well as hotels, beer distributors, taverns, and restaurant chains. Berman & Co. lobbies for companies such as Cracker Barrel, Hooters, International House of Pancakes, Olive Garden, Outback Steakhouse, Red Lobster, Steak & Ale, TGI Friday's, Uno's Restaurants, and Wendy's. It also operates a network of several front groups, web sites, and think tanks that work to keep wages low for restaurants and to block legislation on food safety, secondhand cigarette smoke, and drunk driving.

I'll try to swing by and get more photos of the ads because they are so varied and creative.

The second photo I posted sends you to a website, econ4u.org*, which has some useful information about consumer credit.  The site talks about FICO scores and understanding debt, as well as ways to fund college.  However, one part of the site seems a little out of place.  The site is pro-payday lending, citing that a $15 fee to borrow $100 for two weeks sure beats a late fee for a credit card or a bounced check fee (that's almost 400% interest). 

It's not what Berman advertises and lobbies for that gets to me.  Someone has to present the other side of the argument that mercury is bad for you.  It's the front groups, the spin, the deception.  If you're not trying to fool people, you wouldn't have to try to hide who you are and what you're doing. 

There was really only one ad being run at Metro Center.  It was for Berman and Company, and the message was, "Look what we can do for your business, if we can even make drunk driving seem ok".

*Econ4u.org is a project of the "Center for Economic and Entrepreneurial Literacy", which is a project of the "Employment Policy Institute", which is a front group run by Berman and Company.  Econ4u.org invites you to inquire with the State Division of Consumer Affairs in the Department of Agricultural and Consumer Services for a copy of the financial statement.  I intend to do just that.

All photos by Michael P of Infosnack.  Released under Creative Commons, attribution requested.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

WMATA Long Term Funding - Deja Vu?

It looks like to present the long-term funding issue to stakeholders, all WMATA would have to do is update the 2003 "Metro Matters" campaign information and hit "resend". It's the same issue as five years ago, but with larger numbers, including a 32-year-old system instead of a 27-year-old system.

Last time, WMATA cut a proposed $12 billion 10-year capital improvement plan down to $1.5 billion over 6 years (2004-2009), then divided up the funding requirements by jurisdiction, creating the "Metro Matters" program. For FY 2008, Metro Matters provided around $500 million in infrastructure renewal and capital investment, including upgrades to the Metrorail system to allow 8-car service, renewing rolling stock and track structures, and rehabilitating bus rolling stock and maintenance facilities.

Now that the program is about to end, we need to at least find the money to fund at the same level we've been at for the past six years. Last time, we cut a $12 billion dollar capital need down to $1.5 billion of "bare bones" needs. We continue to have a $11.1 billion dollar capital need for the long term health of the system.

This time, if we fail to purchase enough rail cars, for example, the old 1000-series cars will be at the end of their design life, and will have to be retired. These 296 revenue service cars represent about 27% of the operating fleet. Imagine all 6 car trains suddenly operating as 4 car trains, or all 8 car trains as 6's. Fortunately for WMATA, the next set of train cars is much fewer (76), about a decade newer (1981), and was rehabilitated just a couple of years ago.

This is a big funding priority for WMATA, though I don't know where the money is going to come from. Stay tuned.

Some rough numbers to give you a feel for where the funding could come from.  DC's share of $1 billion per year under the normal WMATA funding formula is likely to be around half, or $500 million.  DC's expected revenues in 2010 are around $2B for property tax, $800M for undedicated sales tax, $50M for car tax, and $1.4B for income tax.

To gain $500M from these sources (assuming static effects only - I'm not that sophisticated), each of these taxes would have to increase by 12%.  The static effect assumption probably means that tax rates would have to increase by more than this in order to gain the revenue needed, since the increase in tax rate may reduce the tax base.

I think it's more likely that WMATA will reduce the amount needed, and DC will find a way to pay its share of "Metro Matters Still" or whatever they will call it.

Monday, September 22, 2008

WMATA/Cubic SmarTrip Contract Audit

Monday's Washington Post Article about Smartrip led me to the WMATA Inspector General's report on the subject.  I wish I had found this about 7 months ago when it was released, it would have saved me some frustrating phone calls with WMATA staff and the press office.

First, what happened?  From the look of the audit report and the Post article, WMATA contracted with Cubic in 2003 to provide system upgrades for Smartrip by early 2005.  The contract "required Cubic to make the necessary modifications to WMATA's existing rail and parking software systems to assure compatibility with the systems of regional partners".  The problem was, the regional partners were using much more modern software than WMATA, and Cubic informed WMATA that upgrading old software would not be supported.  This was only two months after the contract was signed.  Cubic offered a system upgrade to a more flexible system, then waited for WMATA to make a decision.  WMATA delayed making a decision for years, eventually paying Cubic $24M with contract changes.

WMATA was supposed to get new Smartrip point of sale hardware, and upgrades to the Smartrip fare collection software.  The upgrades were to include the ability to load up to 256 different types of transit passes into the system, including passes compatible with multiple transit providers such as VRE and WMATA's Transit Link Pass.  Additional features which were supposed to be delivered by 2005 were automatic reloading of cards, and an automated "hot card" list, which would allow WMATA to electronically cancel Smartrip cards that have been lost or stolen.

The contract did not include provisions for damages in the case of contractor delays.  Delays in the Cubic contract cost WMATA an additional $1.4M in delay claims to a second contractor due to WMATA's inability to implement functionality of a regional customer service center.

WMATA is continuing to contract with Cubic for Smartrip support.  The agenda (PDF) for the WMATA Board Meeting (public comment encouraged, Thursday at 11am) includes an item for a $2M per year consulting contract with Acumen Building Enterprise, Inc., for technical assistance to the Office of Smartrip.  Acumen's Client list includes BART, San Francisco Muni, and other northern California transit agencies, as well as the US Navy and some municipal clients.  What little information there is available on the website suggests that the contractor has at least performed similar work for other clients in the past.

It's disappointing that the same day WMATA declares that they will need $11B in new funding for system maintenance over the next 10 years, a news story breaks that shows that WMATA basically wasted $24M on a mismanaged contract. 

Photo courtesy Mr. T in DC from Flickr

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Where to Spend the Parking Money

Dr. Shoup argues that the best use of parking meter revenue is to spend it locally on sidewalks and the pedestrian environment to improve physical appearance and walking conditions.  With that in mind, I took a short tour to document potential infrastructure repairs near the Navy Yard that should be paid for using the money from parking meters.  The whole tour is available as a set on flickr.

Street Trees

Here's an example of new street trees in boxes or grates, courtesy Mr T in DC on flickr.  This is South Capitol Street at Nationals Stadium, newly completed a couple months before the photo was taken in June 2008:

From my tour, here's some examples of street trees and boxes in need of repair or replacement.  Click for full image:

Sidewalk Problems

Next, let's look at some sidewalk issues.  First, here's what modern sidewalk and curbs are supposed to look like:

Wide curb cut ramps with texture for wheelchair grip, clearly marked crosswalks, no cracks, no weeds, no grass.  Now let's look at some conditions "on the ground".  First, the worst of it:

Poor Utility Construction

Next, we'll take a look at some places where a utility connection has been repaired, and rather than restoring the sidewalk to its original brick construction, the contractor just slapped down some asphalt.

There are more photos on the full tour, but this last photo was my favorite.  It looks like whomever was building this sidewalk either ran out of time or bricks and just decided to throw the last few brick pieces in with some asphalt and go get margaritas:

I'm going to work with DDOT to find out how much approximate repair costs are for the kinds of items I found.  I suspect that it's going to be on the same order of magnitude as the parking revenue generated, based on the success of other cities in using parking meter revenue to fix broken sidewalks.  Unfortunately for the sidewalks, until the $10,000 multispace meter is paid for, only 20% of the revenue can go to non-automobile transportation improvements in the pilot zone (PDF).  After the meters are paid for, it's 75%.  20% of the meter revenue always goes to the general fund.

Ridership Data for H Street Line (X2)

By popular demand and to aid in understanding any Streetcar development, I did the same ridership presentation for the H Street line (X2).  The data is for westbound weekday traffic.  I improved the presentation somewhat:

  • Color coding makes more sense (see map for key)
  • Stops are listed in ridership order


View Larger Map

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Free Parking near the Navy Yard! Commuters Welcome!

Do you agree with this statement?

The District of Columbia should give out a free parking space worth between $960-1440 per year to out-of-state commuters on a first-come, first-served basis, in an area where a parking space sells for $1,800 per year.

DC's new multispace meter on M StreetI don't. I went out and did a survey of vehicles parked on the North side of M Street SE, between 7th Street and Isaac Hull Ave, SE. Each morning around 7 am, I reviewed the cars parked there, and I repeated the survey around 1:30 pm*. I surveyed three days in a row, except the last day I was too busy around lunchtime so I did the survey around 4 pm. The parking restriction on this block face is a three-hour time limit, with no meter**. There is a commuter lot with empty spaces immediately adjacent to this block face offering $8 per day parking.

Is such a time-based restriction effective at deterring commuter parking? I conclude "no", based on the data. I define an "all-day" parker as a vehicle that was observed parked at the study block face at both the morning and the afternoon surveys. Out of 76 individual vehicle observations, 52 were of all-day parkers (26 vehicles observed in the same location twice). I observed that at least 2/3 of the parked vehicles on the block face were parked "all day"** *. Of these 52 vehicle observations, 20 were of vehicles parked "all day" on two separate days. So the "all-day" parkers were a population of 5 people parking all day for two out of three days, and a population of 16 parked all day for one day (see summary table). There were additional cars that one could infer three full parking days, but the last observation was later in the day and these cars were not present for the sixth observation (these are in the table below under "5 observations").

Parked "all-day" once Parked "all-day" twice
Vehicles Observed 16 5

The number of "repeat customers" for this block face seemed to confirm my suspicion that this block is used for commuter parking. For example, 11% of vehicles observed were present for 5 out of 6 observations.

number of observations

DDOT just installed new multispace parking meters on this block face, but there are many like it in the area (for example, 7th Street between M and I Streets, SE, Virginia Ave between 7th and 9th Streets, SE, and others).

Each of these parking spaces is worth, by my estimate, at least $0.50-0.75 per hour ($4-6 per 8 hour workday) and could be rented all day for 240 working days per year. That's potential revenue of $960-1440 per year, per parking space. The block face I observed had 14 cars parked during the first observation period, when it was completely full. That's between $13,000 and $20,000 in foregone revenue, enough to pay for a $10,000 multispace meter within one year.

The population of out-of state plates was high. Out of 28 individual vehicles observed, 26 were out of state (93%), 11 each were from Maryland or Virginia (39%) and the rest were from four other states in the Union, two in the west, one in the northeast and one in the southwest (withheld for privacy).

/Cars_Parked_on_M_Pie_Chart.png

DC has at times requested a commuter tax to provide revenue for public services including street maintenance. Charging for street parking offers a way to increase public revenue by taxing non-residents, which is politically as close to a free lunch as it gets.

A future post will document what DC could do with the parking revenue. I plan to take pictures of busted sidewalks, empty street tree boxes and various other ugliness in this area. I also plan to find all of the free street blocks in the Navy Yard area and produce a Google Map to help you find your free street parking until the District does something about it.

*The parking signs were until recently marked 3 hour parking, so anyone parked at both times was clearly in violation of the parking restriction, intended to keep commuters from keeping their cars there all day.

** DC just installed meters along this face but they are not yet activated.

***Vehicles could have left and returned before the second survey. I did not record relative position or mark tires or anything crazy like that. I think it's more likely than not that they parked all day.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

16th Street Metrobus Line (ridership data)

WMATA recently announced that they're going to be looking into improving bus service on 16th Street NW in DC. There's another public meeting on September 23, be sure to visit the Metrobus 16th Street Line page for details.

They've already had one public meeting (PDF) on July 15, and the attendees broke into small groups to discuss the current problems with the route (mostly bus crowding, bunching, schedule adherence and travel speed issues). According to a recent Washington Post article, Metrobus operates about 75% "on-time" for all routes, defined as between two minutes early and seven minutes late. I'm working with WMATA to get line-specific information for all lines. There's probably a high amount of variability between lines.

I have some observations about Metrobus operation in general and this line in particular, based on looking at the ridership data I received from WMATA.

There are places along the line where there is low ridership as well as close stop placement. For example, why are there bus stops at Webster, Allison and Buchanan? Could the stop at Allison (ridership of 46 per weekday) be eliminated? Dit speed up a bus line more to eliminate a stop that has extremely low ridership, like at 16th & Leegate (12 riders per day, in the northern portion), or to combine two moderate-ridership stops like 16th at Newton and Oak Streets (ridership about 380 per day, each).

Something that would likely increase average speed and reduce bus bunching would be to shift some of the Metrobus lines to "proof of payment" systems. With this, people riding the bus are required to purchase a ticket off of the vehicle, or to posses a valid pass or transfer. According to the public meeting report, 27% of riders board with a flash pass, and 22% of riders are boarding with a free bus transfer. Occasional random inspections and hefty fines would be required to keep people honest, but on the whole this would speed buses tremendously, because people who had valid fares could board by any door. If half of the riders have already paid, why make them enter through the front door?

Another thing I've seen (one example was in Amsterdam's streetcar system) was to put a one-way gate at the front of the vehicle. This was just a spring-loaded gate with a "do not enter sign" on the back, that encouraged people to use the rear door to exit. It didn't impede boarding the car, because you just pushed it aside. Exiting through the front door was possible (just pull the gate toward you), but it reminded people that the front door was for entering, and to use the rear door instead.

Last, they could replace the line or one of its "sisters" (there are parallel lines on Georgia Avenue as well as 14th Streets, I believe) with a streetcar. Streetcars accelerate faster and can hold more people, are usually set up for multiple-door boarding, and can be connected together in multiple-car consists, further boosting capacity.

The data from WMATA concerning northbound daily total ridership is presented in the Google Map below. Each place marker is labeled with the total boardings and alightings for that stop.

Color coding is shown on the map:

  • Red 500+ per day
  • Yellow 250-500 per day
  • Green 100-250 per day
  • Blue <100 per day

Enjoy the data. This one took me awhile to enter into Google Maps.


View Larger Map

New Meters at Navy Yard

Now it looks like DC is going to (finally) start charging for the use of its public streets there. Based on by observations, it's definitely a large fraction of all-day commuters. I don't specifically have a problem with the streets being used for all-day parking, I just think DC is giving up a potential source of revenue for fixing the streets and sidewalks.

No rate or time limit is currently posted on the meter.  I'm working with DDOT to find out.

I've always wondered why DC was giving away street parking for free here:


View Larger Map

Photo courtesy Infosnack.  Photo released under a Creative Commons License, attribution required.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

How much "Pork" is there really?

I had to chuckle at this post on Economist's View.  Keep in mind that our deficit is running more than 10% of the federal budget, so eliminating the small sliver of "Pork" isn't going to do it.  Economist's View also has a graph that shows what the effect of new offshore drilling will be on world oil supply.

Hat tip to Mark Thoma at Economist's View.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Capital Criterium - Short Course Racing on the Streets of Washington DC

Photo Courtesy Steve Wampler on FlickrA criterium is a cycling race held on a closed short course, usually on urban streets.  These are exciting races, for a number of reasons.  Unlike the Tour de France, where you can stand alongside the road and see all the riders pass by once, you can stand by the road and watch the riders pass by a number of times.  You can also easily move to different locations so you can see the riders in turns, on straightaways, and on a little hill.  The turns are tight, and you can typically stand very close to the action.  I've been to the past three CSC Invitational bike races held in Clarendon, and had a good time each time.

Washington, DC is hosting the the first Capital Criterium next Sunday, September 21.  The course is as depicted here:


View Larger Map

The race will include Olympic and Professional riders, including TdF 5th place finisher Christian Vande Velde of team Garmin Chipotle. 

If anyone is interested in meeting up, I'll be arriving around 10:30am to see the children's race (200 meters for under 7, 1 lap for the older kids up to 11).  I'll have my cell phone with me, email michael@infosnack.org for the number.  If anyone is interested in going to lunch during the Men's race (it's about 1:45 long, from 11:30 until 85 laps are complete), I can put together a table at Gordon Biersch Brewery Restaurant, also on the map above.  Please post a comment either here or on GGW so I know what size table to arrange.

Criterium photo Courtesy Steve Wampler on Flickr

Virginia Voting (In-person or Absentee)

The deadline to register to vote in Virginia is Monday, October 6. Contact either presidential campaign for information on how to register to vote, I've found that the campaign staff will be more than willing to help:

  • Obama Campaign Register to Vote Site Obama's registration tool was able to find my registration at my home address in 15 seconds or less.
  • McCain Campaign Register to Vote Site McCain's registration tool did not attempt to find my registration in a database, but provided a pre-filled-out registration form, ready for printing. All I needed to do was sign and provide a stamp.

Absentee voting is also available. As a California resident, I grew up with Absentee voting, since you didn't need an official reason to vote absentee. You added your name to a list, and they sent you all ballots automatically.

In Virginia, however, you must have a statutory reason for voting absentee. There are some little-known "excuses" for absentee voting, so you can save yourself the hassle of going to the polls if you meet any of the following. I've put the surprising ones in bold italics:

  • Students at institutions of higher learning, and their spouses
  • Absent for business purposes (includes persons who are employed outside of Arlington)
  • Absent for personal business or vacation (the statute is written identically to the one directly above)
  • Scheduled to work at one's workplace at least 11 of the 13 hours the polls are open (includes commuting)
  • Unable to get to the polls because of disability, illness, or pregnancy
  • Caretakers of confined family members
  • Awaiting trial and under confinement
  • Serving time for misdemeanor convictions
  • Religious conflicts
  • Active duty uniformed services or merchant marine personnel and dependents residing with them
  • Regularly employed outside the U.S. and dependents residing with them
  • Living abroad indefinitely (may be eligible to vote only for federal offices)
  • Registrars, electoral board members, or officers of election scheduled to work the election

The big one is the first one in bold above. For example, if you work in the District but live in Arlington, Arlington's absentee ballot website encourages you to vote absentee. Also, if you're going to be out of the county on "personal business" for any duration, it appears that would qualify as well. Additionally, if you only want to vote for President and Vice President, you can request an absentee ballot for any reason. However, you won't be able to vote for US Senator or Congressional Representative. That's up to you.

The deadline for applying to vote absentee is October 28th. I believe your application must be received by this date in order for you to vote absentee. You can apply to vote absentee as early as a year ahead of the election.

List of topics I'm working on

I'm thinking about doing posts on the following topics:
  • What happens when there is some completely unregulated street parking space surrounded by an area where there are meters and "resident only" restrictions? I took a tour of the Navy Yard area and will write up the results.  Update: Done!
  • Some MIT students hacked the Boston transit farecards, demonstrating the ability to duplicate cards or change the stored value.  Here's their report (PDF) that describes what they did and how they did it.  They were nice enough to tell the MBTA where their weaknesses were.  The MBTA was kind enough to Sue Their Asses.
  • I received information about the N22 Metrobus Route, which takes a slight detour. The detour never made sense to me, but after seeing the ridership breakdown, it is perfectly clear. What's likely to change now that DC is considering taking over N22 and operating it as a circulator?
  • What are the costs of recycling? Frequent commenter Mark mentioned that recycling paper isn't really "worth it". What types of recycling are "worth it" economically? Are there any other considerations that don't take into account economic costs?
  • Arlington County had an agenda item to decide whether to approve two new taxicab companies' operations in Arlington. The County Manager opposed allowing the new companies based on adverse impact to existing companies.  The item will be up on the agenda at 1:45 pm today.
  • Scott Adams, creator of the Dilbert comic strip, recently commissioned a study of economists about the Presidential candidates.
  • Arlington has approved a "Neighborhood Traffic Calming Manual".  As an aside, the Arlington County tool used to "e-attend" county board meetings is great.

Which of the topics is most interesting to you?  Vote in the comments.

Further evidence that "lipstick on a pig" is a colloquialism

I like reading Filibuster Cartoons.  US and international political humor from a Canadian perspective.  

I'm not going to ramble on except to say that I think the whole flap over the "lipstick on a pig" comment is silly.  Like a lot of people out there, I would like the debate to get back to discussing real issues here.

Constitution of the Confederate States of America

Here's an interesting site that attempts to determine the real motivation behind the US Civil War by analyzing the differences between the CSA Constitution and the US Constitution, on which it was based.  

Was it "states' rights", or slavery?

Their conclusion:  Slavery.  There were few changes to the US Constitution.  The President changed from unlimited four-year terms (with the Washington precedent that he would step down after two) to a single six-year term (similar to Virginia's single four-year term), and gained a line-item veto.  The major changes basically prohibited the States from touching slavery.

By the way, under US Constitutional theory, States don't have "rights".  People have rights and governments have powers.  The US Government has the powers expressly delegated in the Constitution, and the States have all the other powers that governments may exercise consistent with the rights of the people.

Here's the summary:
Overall, the CSA constitution does not radically alter the federal system that was set up under the United States constitution. It is thus very debatable as to whether the CSA was a significantly more pro-"states' rights" country (as supporters claim) in any meaningful sense.  At least three states rights are explicitly taken away- the freedom of states to grant voting rights to non-citizens, the freedom of states to outlaw slavery within their borders, and the freedom of states to trade freely with each other.

States only gain four minor rights under the Confederate system- the power to enter into treaties with other states to regulate waterways, the power to tax foreign and domestic ships thatuse their waterways, the power to impeach federally-appointed state officials, and the power to distribute "bills of credit." When people champion the cause of reclaiming state power from the feds, are matters like these at the tops of their lists of priorities?

As previously noted, the CSA constitution does not modify many of the most controversial (from a states' rights perspective) clauses of the American constitution, including the "Supremacy" clause (6-1-3), the "Commerce" clause (1-8-3) and the "Necessary and Proper" clause (1-8-18). Nor does the CSA take away the federal government's right to suspend habeus corpus or "suppress insurrections."

As far as slave-owning rights go, however, the document is much more effective. Indeed, CSA constitution seems to barely stop short of making owning slaves mandatory. Four different clauses entrench the legality of slavery in a number of different ways, and together they virtually guarantee that any sort of future anti-slave law or policy will be unconstitutional. 

People can claim the Civil War was "not about slavery" until the cows come home, but the fact remains that anyone who fought for the Confederacy was fighting for a country in which a universal right to own slaves was one of the most entrenched laws of the land.

In the end, however, many of the most interesting changes introduced in the CSA constitution have nothing to do with federalism or slavery at all. The President's term limit and line-item veto, along with the various fiscal restraints, and the ability of cabinet members to answer questions on the floor of Congress are all innovative, neutral ideals whose merits may still be worth pondering today. (Emphasis added)

CBO Projects Deficits Even With Large Tax Increases

According to the latest numbers from the Congressional Budget Office, we're going to be looking at deficits for at least until 2018, even if the War on Terrorism is reduced to 30,000 troops (about a fifth of the amount in Iraq during the "Surge"), all tax provisions that have sunset clauses are allowed to expire (for example, the income tax rate on dividends and capital gains would increase to the same rate as tax on "earned income"), and discretionary spending actually decreases from 7.6% of GDP while total outlays grow from 20% to 21% and revenues grow quickly from 18.5% of GDP to 20.5% of GDP.

Let me phrase that another way.  Even if we were to reverse the policies of the last 8 years, we would still not be able to restore fiscal balance.  That's about as partisan as I like Infosnack to get. 

What happened?  Well, since 2001, we're spending 1% more of GDP on defense, and 0.2% more on non-defense discretionary (Medicaid, Transportation, Health, Education, Farm Programs, etc.).  We also went from spending 12.1% of GDP on Mandatory and Net Interest to 12.5%.  So on the spending side we went up by 1.6% of GDP, but on the revenues side we went down from 19.8% of GDP to 17.6% of GDP.  A table below summarizes:

Fiscal Year

Receipts (% GDP)

Outlays (% GDP)

Deficit (%GDP)

2001

19.8

18.5

1.3% Surplus

2008 (Projected)

17.9

20.8

2.9% Deficit

2018 (Projected – CBO Baseline)

20.4

21.0

0.6% Deficit

Even with a big tax increase, the budget is not balanced.  Hat tip to Economist Mom for pointing out the CBO report.  Her commentary on the CBO report is worth a read.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Books I read: Taxes Spending and the US Government's March Toward Bankruptcy

I read a lot of books.  A 40-minute ride on the metro helps.  I go to the Arlington County or Falls Church libraries, head to my favorite Dewey decimal system number (336 – Public Finance) and browse in both directions from there.  

Yes, I am the kind of book nerd that has a favorite Dewey decimal system number.  I also enjoy reading fiction, most recently, The Handmaid's Tale (Atwood), Rendezvous with Rama (Clarke), and the Beggars in Spain trilogy (Kress).  As you can see, lots of science fiction, mostly Hugo and Nebula award winners. 

I recently finished Taxes, Spending, and the U.S. Government's March Toward Bankruptcy by Dr. Daniel N. Shaviro, of NYU Law School.

The book investigates the language we use to describe taxes, spending, welfare and deficits, as well as the consequences of that language.

For instance, what do we mean by "big government" as opposed to "small government"?  Do we look only at the cash flows between the government and that taxpayers?  What if the government only took in and spent 5% of GDP in its budget?  Small government, right?

On the other hand, what if the government took in and spent 50% of GDP?  Most people would say that's a big government.

But what if the tax rates were very high, but there were a large number of credits, deductions and special rates for people that "behaved right" according to the government at the time, and that special tax treatment was always changing in order to incentivize certain behavior?  Now it gets tricky, because of the words we use to describe the size of government. 

 Dr. Shaviro describes the ways that language has been used to conceal the true meaning of many public policies.  For instance, the Earned Income Tax Credit is a way for the government to assist low-wage workers.  Because it's a tax credit, it makes government look "smaller".

 He also discusses deficits and the tricks that legislatures play to move the costs of policies outside of certain windows to hide the ensuing deficits.  A fascinating example of this is the recent TIPRA changes for Roth IRAs.  In order to balance short-term tax cuts within a 5-year window (under PAYGO rules, unbalanced tax cuts in a 5-year window required a "point of order" and 60 votes in the Senate), the Republican Congress passed a bill that removed the income cap on converting traditional IRAs to Roth IRAs in 2010.  This brings in a ton of money for that year (the investor has to pay income tax on the money converted), which just happened to be at the end of the reporting period.

The problem with this scheme is that the pool of untaxed retirement savings is forever depleted, and the government loses more and more tax revenue outside of the window.  The Tax Policy Center did a good analysis of it, but unfortunately I can't find the fantastic graph that went along with it.  Imagine a steadily increasing deficit from 2005 into infinity, with a one-year surplus spike in 2010 that's the same height as the first four years' deficits combined, and you've got it.  Now draw a box around the first five years and you can see that your "budget is balanced". 

 It's crap, and Shaviro calls them on it.  He suggests requiring supermajority (60 percent approval) for tax cuts or entitlement spending increases, and that massive revenue raisers that happen suddenly in the future don't count.  For entitlement spending, apply an infinite horizon or 75-year horizon for the supermajority requirement.

 He suggests better reporting of budget data than just the simple deficit number.  He recommends distributional information (how policies affect different income groups) as well as generational information (how policies affect different age cohorts, or people born around the same year). 

 I'm probably going to pick up "Do Deficits Matter" at some point, same author.  I hope the answer is "yes", since that's what I've been assuming up until now.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Penny costs more than it's worth in Canada too.

Looks like our frozen neighbors to the north share our problem with the penny.  One cafe is taking matters into its own hands by rounding all cash transactions.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

16th Street Bus Line Redesign

WMATA is conducting another public meeting about the 16th Street Bus redesign.  This bus carries over 14,500 passengers on a typical weekday.  

Well, due to my mistake, that got published even though it wasn't complete.  I'll just put up the link right now.

Transit System Collection

When I travel to a city that has a transit system, I usually try to ride it, even if it doesn't make sense for me to do so (I'm looking at you, Pittsburgh!). I collect a system map and a ticket (if they have one). I finally decided to write down my "collection" of transit systems. Take a look, and if you're feeling up to it, post your own collection.

My wife would like to note that some of items involved significant wastes of time and riding in the "wrong" direction compared to what we would have been doing at the time.

In no particular order:

List of Transit Systems I've ridden:
Chicago, IL (Subway & Bus)
London, England (Subway & Bus)
Madrid, Spain (Subway & Bus)
New York, NY (Subway & Bus)
Boston, MA (Subway & Trolleybus)
Budapest, Hungary (Subway, Tram & Bus)
Montreal, Quebec (Subway)
Munich, Germany (Subway)
San Francisco, CA
Cable Car
BART (Subway)
MUNI "F" streetcar (Tram)
MUNI Bus (Trolleybus)
San Jose, CA VTA (Tram)
Washington, DC (Subway & Bus)
Amsterdam, The Netherlands (Tram)
Brussels, Belgium (Premetro & Bus)
Prague, Czech Republic (Tram & Bus)
Vienna, Austria (Tram, Subway & Bus)
Pittsburgh, PA (Premetro)
Antwerp, Belgium (Tram)
San Diego, CA (Tram)
Brugge, Belgium (Bus)
Contra Costa County, CA (Bus)
Arlington County, VA (Bus)
Alexandria City, VA (Bus)
Fairfax County, VA (Bus)
Austin, TX (Bus) (it was a university bus system)

Tram = Streetcar = Light Rail
Premetro = Streetcar + CBD tunneling
Trolleybus = Electric power bus
Subway = Metro = Grade separated rail

Monday, September 8, 2008

Bike Lanes - Improved or Decreased Safety?

The death of Alice Swanson in Washington DC could be attributed to the bike lane that she was riding in. Some argue that bike lanes encourage cycling, and the increased bicycle traffic on the roads increases visibility of bicycles, and therefore increases bicycle safety by encouraging drivers to look out for cyclists. Additionally, the space given to cyclists tends to ease tensions between the cyclists and cars.

On the other hand, some cycling advocates tend to believe that there are instances where bike lanes actually detract from bicycle safety. One of the specific examples is the "right hook" type of accident shown on this bicycle safety webpage, that killed Alice Swanson. She was riding in a right-hand bicycle lane, going straight through an intersection. A garbage collection truck passed her on the left, then turned right across her path and cut her off.

This kind of accident is not uncommon. I think that the bike lanes definitely contribute to the accident because the cyclist is encouraged to remain at the right side of the road, to the right of vehicles that may be turning to the right. The other contributing factor is that drivers underestimate how fast bicycles can travel. Bikes travel at between 12 and 20 mph on city streets, which means that in the 4-8 seconds vehicles take to make a right turn, the cyclist will have traveled 50-250 feet in the same time. That's between two and 12 car lengths, quite a bit further than most drivers probably expect.

I found a very good resource that discusses the research and arguments about bike lanes. I haven't read it all, but the first few chapters were good so I thought I'd pass it along.

UPDATE: The end chapters about bicycle facility design are the best. This image sums up why bicycle side paths are not a very good solution:




Saturday, September 6, 2008

Upcoming WMATA story possibilities

WMATA's press office has told me that I should have my requested interview with the Smartrip manager this week, so if you have any questions please post them in the comments.  Right now I'm going to be concentrating on upgrades to the system in the future, such as the "walking transfer" option being discussed for the Farragut stations, as well as my favorite topic, allowing the smartcards to be used as Metrorail or Metrobus passes.  Other topics will be automatic replenishment with credit card accounts, online payments, etc.

I have also been told by WMATA's public access to records administrator that my question regarding Google Transit should be answered this coming week.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Metro and Recycling

Last week (8/29/2008), I saw this letter to the editor in the Washington Post:
A few nights ago, as I was waiting for a train at the Farragut West Metro station, I noticed a Metro employee emptying the trash cans. When he got to the newspaper "recycle" bin, he poured its contents into his rolling trash can along with all the trash he had already collected. Surprised, I watched him approach the last trash can and dump that trash on top of the newspapers.

So much for recycling. The upside: Apparently you can now use Metro's recycling bins for trash, too!

BEN OLSON

Falls Church

I followed up with WMATA Media Relations to clarify recycling policy for
the newspaper recycling bins in Metrorail stations. The response was
that WMATA janitors normally bring only one container around when
collecting garbage and recycling, but that the newspapers are separated
out and recycled "in the back".

I was surprised at how little WMATA seemed to want to clarify their
policy. WMATA does not always enjoy the public opinion that it is well
managed. When the public writes letters to the editor such as this one,
the implication is that WMATA is not performing to the public's
expectations. The casual Post reader might think, "WMATA
wants me to recycle, but they don't follow up, so why should I bother?"

It seems that they are doing the right thing (recycling newspapers as
intended by the customers), but they allowed the public perception to
continue that they in fact do not care whether or not papers are
recycled. It may seem like a minor issue, but when it comes time to ask
for more funding, either through dedicated taxes or higher fares, the
little tidbit that's filed in the public's mind is that WMATA isn't
managed well. For this example, I think that's an unfair
characterization. WMATA is doing the right thing, but the public
doesn't know it.

The best solution would be for WMATA to make it more clear to the
observer that recycling is going on, either by having the janitors use a
separate can for recycling, or for the janitors to pull a separate trip
for recycling only, so that the public does not see everything going
into the same garbage can. Second best would be for WMATA to respond in
the Washington Post online comments section officially to clearly state
their policy. Third best would be for some blogger to follow up and
write a post about almost nothing.

UPDATE: WMATA's Blue-Orange Line Team customer service provided me with this additional information that was provided to Mr. Olson (the author of the Post letter):

Please allow me to explain what you observed at our Farragut West Station when a custodian was emptying the trash. Our employees have one large barrel, which contain two plastic trash bags. One of the trash bags is "blue." Its contents are recycle material; while, the second bag is "white," and its contents is regular trash.

Once the custodian enters the back room, he/she will take the "blue" bags and place them in our recycle receptacle, and place the "white" bag in the receptacle for regular trash.

When our dumpsters are emptied and removed from our premise, one is for the recycled material and the other is for regular trash. The two groups are not mixed. We have also taken the liberty to re-address our trash and recycle procedures to our staff. I apologize for any confusion regarding Metro's trash pick-up policy. Please be assured that Metro exercise recycling. You can place your newspapers in our receptacles and they will be deposited appropriately.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Drinking the speeches

I have a tradition that when watching political speeches I choose a "drink word".

Tonight's word for McCain's convention speech is "My Friends".

Previously, I've chosen words for the State of the Union address, such as "Freedom", "Bipartisan", or "Responsible".

UPDATE: Apparently when McCain is scripted from the teleprompter, he doesn't say "My Friends" all that much. I got through one beer, and that was getting warm by the end. Good night.

Quick post on recharging electric cars

I saw this in the comments section for a Washington Post Outlook section article on electric cars:

[W]e need to revolutionize our batteries. The Tesla electric car (which may or may not actually make it to production) is aiming for 300 miles between recharges, basing this upon new batteries, but we need batteries with that much or more range, but with rapid recharging: hopefully, no more than 15 or 20 minutes, max.

First, they are producing the Tesla Roadster (240 mile range, 0-60 mph in 3.9 seconds) in very small quantities.

Second, assuming 300 mile range and 150 watt-hours per mile, you're talking about a 45 kWh battery. For charging in 20 minutes, that's a 135 kW connection, which at 220 V for two-connector house current, you'll need a 600+ Amp connection. As far as I know, you probably don't want to be handling 600 Amp connections regularly. Even if you get the car down to bike efficiency (40 watt-hours per mile @ 20 mph*), that's 12 kWh stored, and 36 kW connection, which is still a 150+ Amp connection at 220V.

We're not going to be driving 300+ miles on electric cars and then recharging them in 20 minutes, unless you completely replace the battery while charged. These batteries weigh over 1000 lbs and have extensive heavy-duty electrical connections. They are usually custom-fit into the cars to provide the largest battery package that fits in the car. I don't forsee a huge network of service stations ("Jiffy Charge"?) that will replace your multi-thousand dollar, 1000-lb battery in less than half an hour. I'm not saying it definitely won't happen, I would just bet money against it.

Does this mean that without liquid fuels, the 1000-mile roadtrip day is done? The drive-around-the-clock coast to coast marathon?

*For 100W of output, you can ride a bike at 10mph, which is 10 watt-hours per mile. Scaling up to 20 mph and assuming that most of the losses are air friction, which scale with the cube of speed, that's 8x as much power to go 20 mph instead of 10 mph. For 800W at 20 mph, that's 40 Wh per mile. Since at 10 mph the power required is not all air friction, this probably overestimates the power required for 20 mph.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Social Security Tricks

Kiplinger's magazine, to which I subscribe, is not always useful since it seems to concentrate on stock tips, and I rarely buy common stocks. Recently, they have run a series of articles that are aggravating and infuriating to me, because they broadcast some very lucrative loopholes that can allow people to obtain much larger social security benefits than must have been intended in the program as conceived. Let's take a look at them:

This article describes a scheme where a married couple has both earned a social security benefit by working and earning enough credits to qualify. Normally, both spouses would probably retire and take the benefit around the same time, and obtain the retirement benefit that they're entitled to based on their wage history. Kiplinger's, on the other hand, advises that one partner should take the retirement benefit early (you can take it as early as 62 years old, but the benefit is reduced) with the other spouse claiming the spouse benefit. This would allow the other spouse to delay claiming their own benefit as long as possible, increasing its amount.

Clever, but I find this scheme distasteful. The spousal benefit was not a part of the original 1935 Social Security Act (added in 1939), and was intended for the non-working spouse or minor children of the family's sole breadwinner, not a spouse who had earned a benefit through their own work.

Even better is this article, which describes the "Social Security do-over". It's typical for people to think about taking the retirement benefit as early as 62 because they are concerned about a short life expectancy. Taking the benefit this early can reduce the benefit by as much as 30 percent. However, someone that survives their early retirement years and has other financial means can "reset the clock" as late as age 70 by paying back all benefits received to date, without interest. Then, you get to recalculate your benefit based on your new retirement age, which can increase your benefit by about 50% over the benefit at age 62.

So people wealthy enough to fund 8 years of retirement out of pocket can take an interest-free loan from the government. For typical benefits, we're talking about "borrowing" $100,000 or more interest-free that doesn't have to be paid back if the retiree dies during that 8 years. After that, it's as if it never happened and the retiree can take the maximum benefit for the rest of their life. The specific example given in this article involves a benefit that starts off at $1200 per month, and increases to $2100 after the "do-over" for a payback of $130,000. To buy a comparable increase in benefits as an annuity, the article states that would set you back $190,000. The annuity doesn't automatically increase for inflation and have a spouse benefit, either, so the government is giving the retiree an interest-free loan and benefit package worth more than $60,000. There is no clear policy justification for this loophole. I would modify this one by requiring interest on the loan, equal to the rate on the T-bills the government has had to issue to borrow the money in the meantime.

The last one involves a retired gentleman who has remarried and has a 4-year old child with his new wife. He recently discovered that his young child is eligible for a benefit equal to half of his benefit, and has received a $40,000 retroactive payment for the 4 years she should have been receiving payments. The money is being invested for her college.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Energy Bulletin - Congressman's views on energy

Energybulletin.net has this excellent post analyzing some of the energy talking points that are out there. I wish the post had had something about ethanol since there are definitely a lot of myths out there.

National Arboretum

For Labor Day, I went to the National Arboretum with my son. For the first time, I took "our" bike (he sits in a Bobike mini front child seat). I highly recommend seeing the arboretum by bike if you can. The size of the park (I think about 450 acres) is too big to see on foot, and yet the distances are easily bikeable. From Google Maps, the park is about 0.8 mile wide by 1.2 miles long, perfect for a bike. It's a little hilly, but my bike has a triple chainring, so just gear it down and crank away.

The National Arboretum is maintained by the USDA and incorporates elements of a large-scale garden. It's not a natural forest, each section of the park is planned and landscaped in order to show the trees and plants in their natural environment. They have an extensive collection of Bonsai or Penjing, including trees that date back over 200 years.

They have a new exhibit for "energy crops", plants that are current or potential sources of biofuel. Everything from corn, switchgrass and sugarcane (ethanol-producing crops) to peanuts, soybeans, jatropha and canola (biodiesel producing crops) to algae (either ethanol or biodiesel). The exhibit was well done, display signs explained each crop and type of fuel including the industrial processes used to make the fuel. Unfortunately, there wasn't much in the way of information giving the scale of each potential source compared with the amount of liquid fuels used in the US or the world.

Google Chrome

I'm excited about Google Chrome. That is all. HT:Googleblog