Arriving in Beijing

Two weeks ago, I landed in China to start work on a clean energy and urban design research studio. This project involves a new tool to model neighborhood units’ energy performance — operational, embodied, and transportation energy use, as well as the potential for on-site clean energy production — in the context of rapidly urbanizing Chinese cities. Flying the approach into Beijing Capital International Airport gave me the first taste of the scale of the problem we’re considering…

Summer Internship and Commute

Count the modes of Southern California’s transportation palimpsest shown in the video below – cars, trucks, buses, light rail, subway, commuter rail, freight rail, helicopters…With this view from my office, it’s amazing I got any work done.

For most of the summer, I commuted to an internship at LA’s Union Station. I generally commuted from Orange County on Metrolink (accessing stations by a combination of bike, car, OCTA bus, and iShuttle). I also tried LADOT Commuter Express, Metro Local bus lines, and, on one morning, driving from the Westside. The figure below shows the routing of these trips and how often I made them.

I paid $258.75 for a Metrolink student monthly pass, or about $12.93 per weekday round trip over the month. The equivalent weekday round trip cost would be less if some of the pass’s other benefits (e.g. validity for most Southern California transit operators including Metro and OCTA, for weekend travel anywhere on Metrolink’s system, and for Amtrak between the station pairs on the pass) were taken into account. According to the National Transit Database, Metrolink’s operating cost per passenger mile is $0.42, or $34.13 for my 81.25 mile round trip weekday commute. This equates to a fare subsidy of approximately $21.20 per day. The subsidy would be higher for days on which I used the iShuttle or OCTA to access the station.

How does this compare to the cost of driving this 81 mile roundtrip commute? The cost of gas and maintenance for making this trip alone in a Honda Civic would be about $24.03 per day. That is, driving would have been twice as expensive, and I would have lost the productivity (or sleep) time I had on the train.

While they were definitely a big benefit to me personally, are the subsidies for Metrolink optimal more broadly? A draft report by Ian Parry (Resources for the Future) and Kenneth Small (UC Irvine) offers some guidance about the consideration of externalities such as air pollution, traffic congestion, and crashes.

  • Greenhouse gases – A Honda Civic would emit approximately 0.45 kg CO2e per mile, or 36.36 kg CO2e of greenhouse gases for the roundtrip commute. Using a cost of carbon suggested by the US Interagency Working Group on Social Cost of Carbon, $0.09 per kg CO2e results in a social cost borne by society of $3.27. In contrast, Metrolink’s diesel locomotives emit 0.18 kg CO2e per passenger mile, resulting in an externalized social cost of $1.36.
  • Air pollution – Parry and Small estimate that air pollution externalities (e.g. increased healthcare costs due to exposure to particulate matter and NOx) in the Los Angeles area are $0.07 per vehicle mile, resulting in a $5.66 externalized pollution cost for my roundtrip. Assuming that the ratio between a car trip’s greenhouse gas externality and Metrolink’s greenhouse gas externality equals the ratio between a car’s pollution externality and Metrolink’s externality, the externalized air pollution cost of Metrolink would be $2.36 for my roundtrip.
  • Congestion – Parry and Small estimate that during rush hour in Los Angeles, each car imposes a congestion externality on the cars behind it of $0.34 per mile, for a roundtrip externality of $27.47. An externalized crowding cost for Metrolink would be negligible, since seats were always available on the trains I rode. Even if demand increased beyond seating capacity, it is reasonable to assume that more trains would be added, decreasing wait times for other riders and resulting in an external benefit, rather than cost.
  • Crashes – The risk of injuring others in a car crash is estimated to be $0.03 per mile, which equals $2.42 for my roundtrip. The risk of Metrolink crashes is assumed to be negligible.

These externalities sum to $38.82 for driving this roundtrip, and $3.72 for riding Metrolink. Society, through the market’s failure to consider these externalities, essentially subsidizes a driver who makes this trip $38.82, while subsidizing a Metrolink student rider only $24.92 (the sum of the fare subsidy plus the externalities). To equalize these figures, society should be willing to subsidize Metrolink tickets by an additional $13.90. Put another way, if society were willing to bear the same amount of costs from Metrolink riders as from single occupancy vehicles, Metrolink student riders would pay a fare of negative $1 (i.e. be paid for making the trip)!

In this second-best way of economic thinking, it makes sense to pay people not to drive; the longer the car trip that is averted, the more pollution and these other externalities are reduced. This way of thinking, of privileging riders who have the choice to use a car instead, underlies Southern California’s transportation agencies’ willingness to expend sales tax revenues to subsidize suburban riders well upwards of $20 per day, but urban bus riders at only a fraction of that level. This setup is especially perverse given that suburban rail riders tend to be those who are already taking advantage of mortgage tax breaks and who have more mobility options than poorer urban residents who depend on transit.

Accepting single occupancy vehicles as the baseline leads to strange second-best pricing/subsidy outcomes. Instead, maybe what’s needed is a paradigm shift and a system whereby drivers pay more fully the costs they impose on society.

School Bus Migrations – MIT Transportation Showcase References


My poster, entitled “School Bus Migrations – Repurposing and Replacing Transit Vehicles in the Global South,” tied for third place in the Economics, Finance, Policy and Land Use Category at the 2011 MIT Transportation showcase.

Poster references:

  1. Muñoz, J. C. & Gschwender, A. (2008). Transantiago: A tale of two cities. Research in Transportation Economics 22, 45-53.
  2. Schalekamp, H. & Behrens, R. (2010). Engaging paratransit on public transport reform initiatives in South Africa: A critique of policy and an investigation of appropriate engagement approaches. Research in Transportation Economics 29, 371-378.
  3. wa Mungai, M. & Samper, D. A. (2006). “No Mercy, No Remorse”: Personal Experience Narratives about Public Passenger Transportation in Nairobi, Kenya. Africa Today 52, 51-81.
  4. Santiago Cardoso, A.C. (2011). Da ideia à cidade, do plano ao projeto: gênese do processo de transformação urbana em Curitiba a partir do plano preliminar de urbanismo. Dissertation, Pontifícia Universidade Católica do Paraná.
  5. Rizzo, M. (2011). ‘Life is War’: Informal transport workers and neoliberalism in Tanzania 1998 – 2009.
  6. Müller-Schwarze, N. (2009). Diablos Rojos: Painted Buses and Panamanian Identities. Visual Anthropology 22, 435-456.

In the News: Pontificia Universidad de Chile Engineering Website

For the last month and a half, I have been working on a transit evaluation project with the Across Latitudes and Cultures – Bus Rapid Transit Center of Excellence hosted by the Catholic University of Chile in Santiago. The University’s engineering department put together a quick overview of my work here (the result of my first ever interview in Spanish). Below is a loose translation:

Anson Stewart has completed nearly a year touring countries in Central America and Africa, observing transport systems

Anson Stewart, with bachelor degrees in urban studies and engineering from Swarthmore College (Philadelphia) and a masters student at MIT, is undertaking his investigation “School Bus Migrations” thanks to the Watson Fellowship, which 40 young people from the United States receive annually. This scholarship promotes the exploration and learning about other cultures around the world during a year.

June, 2011

South Africa, Tanzania, Guatemala, Panama, Belize, Nicaragua, and Argentina were some of Stewart’s destinations before arriving in Chile. In these countries he began his investigation about school buses that the United States exports en masse to different countries of the world for public transportation. After a bit of exploring, Stewart encountered some interesting findings.

All of the countries of Central America are scrapping the yellow buses which served in previous years as public transportation. Today there exist ongoing implementations or at least plans for bus rapid transit (BRT) systems, as was established in Colombia with the name Transmilenio at the beginning of the past decade, and recently in Johnnesburg. Nicaragua and Tanzania are in the planning stages, Guatemala has two corridors, and Panama has the buses but still do not use them because of the lack of political agreement.

Stewart believes that this tendency to implement BRT in all of these countries does not end up positively in all cases. “I think that the countries are replicating a technical model without necessarily thinking in the specific cases of culture, political system, or infrastructure,” he says.

Although there are not agreements among experts about its definition, according to Stewart, BRT is understood as a system of exclusive corridors for buses with prepaid fares. According to this definition, Transantiago corresponds to a BRT model in the trunk routes where prepaid boarding areas exist.

“Transantiago is the only case in which the change was complete at the level of the city, and not gradual, in contrast with the other countries where BRT is being implemented. This leads to quite a few challenges, and I think that the system functions quite well,” affirms Stewart. Among the positive aspects of Transantiago, the expert highlighted the ease of obtaining and using the Bip farecard,website services, and the security that results from drivers not having to race and compete for passengers.

To complement his investigation, Stewart hopes to travel to Punta Arenas and Puerto Montt, the furthest destinations to which school buses from the US have arrived. At the end of July, he will return to the US where he will begin his MS Transportation studies at MIT to complement his studies in urbanism and engineering.

Sustainable neighborhood development must be pedestrian centered

[Another blog entry I wrote for ACE]

October 22, 2008

Over the course of a month this summer, three pedestrians were struck and injured by cars along Washington Street between Dudley Square and Melnea Cass Blvd. These tragedies are common and indicative of the unsafe conditions that traffic congestion creates in Dudley Square. Pedestrians from nearby parks, schools, stores, and housing must contend with cars and buses, often speeding down Ruggles Street, Washington Street and Shawmut Avenue (which bound ACE’s office at 2181 Washington Street). Read more…

The Hidden Curriculum

Monday was my second session of Introduction to Education.  Our theme for the day was the “hidden curriculum” of schools.  We spent the afternoon discussing and analyzing the socially reproductive functions of the classroom in socializing children along lines of class, gender, and race.  There was some engaging discussion, especially about the hidden curriculum of Oregon Trail the computer game.  We started the class by writing nametags.  I couldn’t help but think that this was part of a hidden curriculum preparing us to be teachers.  Or at least a hidden evaluation of our “teacher” handwriting…

Water Quality Lab

My lab group collecting samples in Ridley Township [Photo courtesy of Professor McGarity]

Last week was my first lab session for my Water Quality and Pollution Control class.  Our group retrieved and analyzed samples from an autosampling setup on a tributary to the Little Crum Creek.  It was good to be back in the Engineering Department Suburban for the first time this year.  It’s always an adventure having professors drive around in the Suburban (which is even older than my dad’s truck).  I also enjoyed feeling like I was back in a chemistry lab after a few years of heavily mechanical/electrical labs.  We analyzed the samples, which had been taken during a recent rain event, for total suspended solids, nitrates, and phosphates.  Professor McGarity’s work on local watershed issues is outlined here.

Green Jobs Hearing

I sat through a four hour long hearing on green jobs at the State House today.  It was slightly ironic that they were discussing energy auditing, green jobs, and renewable electricity while the temperature in the room on an 85 degree day was about 55 degrees.  The rally beforehand was cool.  And at least it didn’t go until 3:14 AM, like the unfortunate July 25th, 2006 Irvine City Council meeting.

state hearing

green jobs rally