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.


In January, I spent 24 hours in Medellín, Colombia, before an urban design workshop being held in Bogotá. While it wasn’t nearly enough time in the city, I was excited to explore some of the internationally-renowned public spaces and the new bus and metrocable transit lines.

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Music on Transantiago

In general, there were less musicians and vendors on Santiago’s buses and Metro than I encountered in other cities’ transportation systems. One exception is the scheming gringo shown in the video below – he may look familiar to my friends from high school.

"First Class Treasures"

When I would board Cape Town’s Metrorail, the ticket agents would usually sell me, a white-looking person, a first class ticket. One time, out of curiosity, I asked for a second-class ticket instead. The agent looked at me as if I were crazy and curtly informed me that there are only first and third class tickets. I found the omission of second class nonsensical until I reminded myself that South Africa is one of the world’s most unequal countries (with a Gini coefficient second only to Namibia’s). Given South Africa’s history, its separation of train service into first and third classes, without designating a second class, makes sense.

Cape Town Station embodies this apartheid legacy of inequality and segregation:

The first station developments on the site date back to the mid 1800s when rail began playing an important role in the history of the early settlement at the Cape, the Boer War, the Apartheid Era and the Resistance of 1980’s on. The existing station development dates back to the early 1960s when the Victorian structure on Adderley Street was demolished to make way for a modern building that embodied the policy of apartheid, through the introduction of separate concourses and entrances for people of different population groups… The challenge of the present is to re-interpret the station as a profound symbol of the city and to determine how it will influence what happens at its edges, what effect it will have on the city, what potentials it can realise and what it will represent to the people of Cape Town, South Africa and the rest of the World.

(From PRASA’s Xchange Project).

Most passengers today use the First Class entrances and waiting areas, since the station areas are no longer segregated. The station’s design obscures the Third Class areas, its “back doors,” from passengers using the First Class facilities. To get an insight into these “back doors” that non-whites were forced to use during apartheid, I participated in a tour called “First Class Treasures,” part of Cape Town’s Infecting the City public art festival.

Using spoken word, music, and video, the tour was an “unusual and illuminating journey through the old and new parts of the Cape Town City Station.” Jethro Louw, “the godfather of the spoken word in Cape Town,” provided powerful insights into how the evolution of the railroad and the station heightened social tensions, beginning with South Africa’s first steam locomotives and trains. The tour ended in the Third Class suburban concourse, a neglected hallway with more pigeons than passengers.

It was in the Third Class concourse that I saw a billboard for the Xchange Project, promising investment and renovation for the station. In the project’s Basic Information Document, PRASA outlines four goals:

  • Reframe the role of Cape Town Station to become a vibrant, operationally efficient and dignified public transport hub at the heart of Cape Town
  • Re-organise spatial and functional arrangements that facilitate operational efficiencies, economic progression while driving spatial and social integration
  • Revitalise and re-energise the station as a sustainable destination/gateway to Metropol and hinterland
  • Renew public confidence in rail travel

Tellingly, this document also lists the first role of Cape Town Station as “Social and Governance” (ahead of Railway Operations, Transport, Spatial, Economy, and Environment). The stated goal of station renovation seems to be working against the station’s apartheid design principles. Yet in practice, the First Class part of the station received a World Cup face-lift, while the Third Class concourse has been basically untouched. The shops there are mostly shuttered, and only a few passengers transferring from the minibus taxi rank on the station’s roof still use the old, unattractive Third Class concourse. It seems that, so far, work on the Cape Town station has only increased the inequality between the two spaces and further marginalized the Third Class concourse.

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City Night Line

Unsurprisingly, I couldn’t find any direct flights from Panama City to my next destination, Dar es Salaam. Since the cheapest flight to Europe was to Frankfurt, I decided to fly there, take a train down to Italy, and catch a ferry to Africa. My red-eye flight from Panama City was originally scheduled to land in Frankfurt at 7:00 AM, giving me plenty of time to travel by train to Florence, where I would spend the night. I was looking forward to this opportunity to see the Alps by train during the winter. When I arrived at the airport, however, I found out the flight had been “retimed,” departing seven hours late due to winter weather in Europe. When I arrived in Frankfurt, I found out the trains were running late because of weather problems too. There was no way to make it to Munich in time for my train to Florence; luckily, I was able to book a spot on the night train.

After my first train journey of the trip (and my first time on a DeutscheBahn ICE train) from the Frankfurt Flughafen Station to the Munich Hauptbahnhof, I had a couple of hours to pick up some bratwurst and ride around the U-Bahn. I boarded City Night Line Train 485 for the 9:00 PM departure. The ride through Bayern and up into Austria was breathtaking. Though I didn’t get to see the mountains during the day, as I had originally hoped, there was something magical about riding through the night with the snow on the ground and lights sparkling in the distance – this was probably the closest to the Polar Express I’ll ever get. The tracks winding through the mountains south of Innsbruck were especially nice, and I loved watching trucks barreling down the highway that paralleled the tracks into Bressanone. I arrived at Firenze Santa Maria Novella at 6:20 the next morning, exhausted after staying up for most of the night watching the scenery.

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The video below has some Google Earth flyovers of the route.

Panama City’s Metro

METRO DE PANAMÁ from 5sentidos on Vimeo.

One of the friends I made through Alianza Pro Ciudad was a fellow transportation engineering student. His perspectives on the country’s history, politics, and development were fascinating especially given his work with a consulting firm on Panama’s planned Metro. The project to alleviate the city’s congestion is a major priority for President Martinelli’s administration. I enjoyed his stories about having to go through security checks to attend project meetings at the Presidential Complex and the unrealistic deadlines the politicians set for the engineers.

Pueblo Nuevo Ferry

A highlight of my time in Corozal was a visit to one of the District’s hand-cranked ferries. I was particularly interested in seeing a school bus make the crossing. After talking with some local residents, I understood that the bus from Corozal Town to Copper Bank would leave at 7:00 AM and travel the 5 km to the ferry, from which I could walk back to town. Matthew, a fellow traveler I met in Belize City, and I made it to the town square a bit before 7:00, but the Lino’s Bus we were looking for was nowhere to be found. So we decided to walk out to the ferry.

After we had walked for about half an hour, around the corner ahead of us turned the Lino’s Bus we had been looking for, going the opposite direction into Corozal. I figured it was running late because of muddy roads, and that we would be able to hop on it when it returned to Copper Bank. By 9:15, having endured much mud and little shade, we made it to the Pueblo Nuevo Ferry.

I asked one of the ferry workers who was leaving his shift what time the bus would be returning, and he replied, “about 10:30.” So we decided to wait and watch vehicles cross the river for an hour, during which time we nourished some mosquitoes and helped push a stalled Volkswagen Jetta up onto the ferry.

At 10:30, David, the other ferry worker (who works a twelve hour shift, from 6:00 AM to 6:00 PM), came over to us and asked what we were waiting for. I told him about my project and how I wanted to see the Copper Bank bus crossing back over. “You’re going to be waiting a long time; it doesn’t come back until 7:30 tonight,” he responded. He then explained that the Lino’s Bus driver had indeed come back across on the ferry a couple minutes before; unless there was a large crowd needing to get to Copper Bank in the morning, the driver usually left the bus in town and hitchhiked home for lunch.

We laughed at all of the misunderstandings about times, helped crank the ferry back to the Corozal side, and caught a ride back to town in the bed of a pickup truck.

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Taiko at the Swarthmore Student Dance Concert

Last week I performed in Swarthmore’s Spring Student Dance Concert with a Taiko ensemble: