Felix Salmon

How the taxi-medallion bubble might burst

Felix Salmon
Jan 20, 2012 21:21 UTC

Remember the sharp rise in taxi medallion prices over the past few years? I thought that the price was pretty justifiable back then, in October, although I did have my concerns:

Any time you see a chart like the ones above, you have to worry that there’s a bubble. Plus, there’s political risk: the mayor can print new medallions, making the existing ones worth a little less (but not a lot less, given that the income from medallions is largely fixed).

Since then, however, two things have happened. First, New York City agreed to print 2,000 new medallions — that’s a very large increase. And secondly, Charles Komanoff — you remember him — has done the hard math of what this means for congestion and taxi incomes.

The first thing to understand is that while 2,000 cars might not seem very much in the context of a city which sees 800,000 cars per day, in fact it’s huge. Taxis spend 40 times as much time driving in congested areas as private cars do, so 2,000 medallions is the equivalent of 80,000 private cars. And when you impact the amount of traffic that much in an area which is already highly congested, the effects can be enormous:


The bottom line, here, is not just significantly more congestion, with travel speeds dropping on average from 9.5 mph to 8.4 mph. That inconveniences everybody, of course, not least the cab drivers themselves, who will take a whole extra minute, on average, to get to where their passenger wants to go. That decreases the number of fares they can pick up per day, and hurts their income.

And at the same time, the number of people wanting to take a taxi is likely to go down, when traffic speeds fall, rather than up. If you have fewer people hailing a greater number of cabs, then it’s simple math that the number of fares per cab shift is likely to fall. According to Charles’s calculations, it will fall in total a good 19%.

If taxi fares stay constant, that means a 19% drop in taxi-fare income, per cab. Fares won’t rise enough to cover that fall. And of course the income for the driver is going to fall more than 19%, because the medallion owners are going to be very reluctant to drop the amount they charge the drivers per shift.

All of which implies to me that if there’s a medallion-price bubble, then the introduction of 2,000 new medallions is likely to prick that bubble. And conversely, if medallions keep on changing hands for a million dollars a pop even after those 2,000 new cars are on the road, then we can be pretty sure that there’s no bubble here at all.



Your explanation makes sense. Thank you for your detailed response!

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

How to rent a bike without a credit card, DC edition

Felix Salmon
Jan 6, 2012 19:09 UTC

Good news over at the Capital Bikeshare website, which has now been updated to make it perfectly clear that you can, after all, use your debit card to pay for a Bikeshare membership. The FAQ,which used to say that memberships require a credit card, now says “credit or debit card”; the signup page, which used to ask for your credit card details, now says “credit/debit card” at the top of that section. All of which means that although it was always technically possible to sign up for a membership with a debit card, now many more people are likely to actually do so.

On top of that, Bikeshare manager Josh Moskowitz tells me that some kind of installment plan should be in place “in the early half” of this year. It’s unclear whether that option will be open only to Bank on DC members, or whether it will be open to everyone.*

I still think that, in terms of getting the unbanked on bikes, the best approaches are always going to be ones which just get the unbanked on bikes, rather than ones which try to get the unbanked to open bank accounts which in turn will allow them to get onto bikes. But this is a move in the right direction — and a move which is probably going to cost some small amount of money for Bikeshare.

Remember that there’s a $1,000 fee charged to your card if your bike is lost or stolen. Now, what’s more likely: that your credit card has $1,000 of spare capacity on it before it’s maxed out, or that your checking account contains $1,000 in cash? I’d say the former, by a substantial margin. So the chances of Bikeshare having to chase down an individual when the $1,000 charge doesn’t go through are surely higher if that person signed up with a debit card than they are if they used a credit card.

So well done to Bikeshare for fixing its site and taking the risk that it might have to do more work chasing down the money for lost and stolen bikes. My gut feeling is that the marginal difference here is small. But government organizations like Capital Bikeshare are always overcautious and risk-averse, and I genuinely thought when I wrote my initial post on this that Bikeshare wouldn’t allow debit cards to be used for memberships at all. Now, let’s keep our fingers crossed in the hope that they come up with some way of being able to serve unbanked people without debit cards at all.

*Update: Moskowitz confirms that the installment plan will be available to everyone.


Please tell me there’s an option to purchase insurance so I don’t get hit $1,000.

Or better yet, incorporate the insurance with the membership.

Posted by SomethingGre | Report as abusive

Improbably unwalkable city of the day, Jerusalem edition

Felix Salmon
Jan 2, 2012 19:43 UTC


Remember the importance of counting intersections? Density alone is good, but not sufficient for a pleasant, walkable urban experience: you also need to be able to get from one place to another in a reasonably straightforward, noncircuitous manner. Cities did this naturally before the 1930s, but then urban planners started building cul-de-sacs and other ways of maximizing the effective distance between any two points.

Now, Michael Lewyn reports on some extremely unwalkable street design in a city which most emphatically predates 1930: Jerusalem, of all places. He was staying in a 32-storey residential building called Holyland Tower, whose official rendering shows lots of people on foot and just one car. But in reality, this is not a neighborhood for pedestrians:

To find the area, go to Google Maps and go to a street called Avraham Perrera. You will note that the street is in a section of looped streets that make the typical American cul-de-sac seem like a masterpiece of clarity. As a result, very little of interest is within walking distance, and what is within walking distance is hard to find unless you know the area really, really, really well.

One look at the map and you can tell this is not a walkable neighborhood. Yes, Jerusalem is hilly, but there are lots of walkable hilly cities: San Francisco and Lisbon spring to mind. This area, to the west of the city, is relatively new; it was clearly built with the idea that people would get around first and foremost using their own personal cars.

What’s more, the Holyland development seems to be targeted at Americans, who are used to the suburban lifestyle, like it a lot, and are attracted by developments which can claim to be “surrounded by 15 acres of green park”. Residential towers can be fine things, but they become very bad neighbors when they’re surrounded by nothing.

I suspect that what’s going on here is a classic case of Nimbyism: Jerusalem has a growing population, it needs a lot more residential square footage, but the locals in Jerusalem proper refuse to allow developers to build up. So those developers retreat to the hills, where, attempting to make a virtue out of necessity, they create luxury towers as removed as possible from the bustle of urban life.

I’d be interested to hear about growing cities which are getting this right, rather than wrong. There are lots of cities which predate 1930 and are very walkable. And there are lots of cities and suburbs which postdate 1930 and aren’t. But it’s now been 50 years since Jane Jacobs published The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Which new or growing cities have taken her lessons to heart, anywhere in the world?


Old towns were designed to have a handful of main clear avenues leading to the limited number of city gates so that horsemen could maneouver in defence. However, for defence purposes most towns were built on hills and the streets were set up based on the topography which could be very variable.

So you ended up with very convuluted street layouts that were often useful in local defences for individual streets or local parts of the town. The thing that makes many of those areas walkable, but not driveable, were the little alleyways that would get built to allow for pedestrian, but not horse, traffic. some of these cut throughs require steps to transition from one topohgraphic area to another. Modern automobile-based design often neglects putting those little cut-throughs in place that existed in the ancient and medieval towns, so the cars follow long windy roads tracking the contours of the land.

Posted by ErnieD | Report as abusive

Getting the unbanked on bikes

Felix Salmon
Dec 27, 2011 16:41 UTC

American Banker’s Andy Peters has a jolly story about how West Virginia’s United Bank is teaming up with Washington’s bike-sharing program, to help the formerly unbanked have access to this handy form of transportation.

To check out a bike from one of Capital Bikeshare’s 110 solar-powered stations, users must first swipe a debit card or credit card.

Such a system locks out plenty of low-income commuters who use Washington’s Metro trains and buses but lack a checking account or a credit card…

Bank on DC is offering a $25 discount on yearly Capital Bikeshare memberships to those who open an account at either United Bank, a unit of United Bankshares, or District Government Employees Federal Credit Union. A Capital Bikeshare annual membership normally runs $75.

“These are not necessarily high-balance accounts, but a lot of the customers are using their accounts very prudently,” says Craige L. Smith, the chief operating officer of United Bank’s Virginia division. “We think there is real value in establishing those relationships.”

The fact is, however, that there’s a lot not to like here, most of which is elided by Peters. This scheme is not going to get the unbanked onto Capital Bikeshare in any remotely significant numbers, for a lot of reasons.

Firstly, the $25 discount comes only on the most expensive form of membership — the annual membership which the poor and unbanked are least likely to be able to afford. If you want to help bring down the cost of accessing these bikes, then charging $50 just to get started is not a great way of doing that. In many cases, that’s $50 desperately needed for food or rent: buying bike access in eleven months’ time simply isn’t on the list of priorities, no matter how good a deal it might be.

Secondly, the unbanked tend to be unbanked for many, many reasons. Some are good, some are bad. But it’s ridiculous to imagine that getting a $25 discount on a bikeshare membership is going to be enough to persuade anybody to open a bank account. Millions of dollars have been spent on all manner of imaginative approaches towards trying to get the millions of Americans without bank accounts to open one. Few if any of those approaches actually work. This one won’t work either.

Thirdly — and this is key — opening a bank account isn’t enough to get you that $25 discount. A bank account will come with a debit card, and a debit card will get you a bike for either 24 hours or three days. But as the bikeshare website clearly says, “all Capital Bikeshare memberships require a credit card”. If you want to get that $25 discount, you’re going to need not only a bank account but also a credit card.*

At the same time, even if you don’t take advantage of the $25 discount, it’s still a bad idea for the newly-banked to rent a bike even for just one day, using their United Bank debit card. Capital Bikeshare spells this out quite explicitly:

When you join Capital Bikeshare with a 24-hour or 3-day membership, a preauthorization hold of $101 per bike is placed on your card account. This is a not a charge against your account. It serves as a security deposit and will be returned to you when the hold expires. Holds may last up to 10 days, depending on the credit card company. We recommend using a credit card and not a debit or check card when becoming a 24-hour or 3-day member. Using a debit card may result in overdrafts if you don’t have sufficient funds in your account to cover the hold.

It’s easy to imagine someone opening their first-ever bank account with United Bank, using their debit card to pay $7 for one day’s biking, and then immediately getting hit by some whopping overdraft fee because of that $101 hold.

Then again, the possible charges if you rent a bike with your credit card are substantially higher. This is hidden away in the small print when you sign up for a membership:

If Member maintains possession of the Capital Bikeshare bicycle beyond the Permitted Period of Continuous Use, then the Capital Bikeshare bicycle is deemed lost or stolen, Member’s credit card will be charged a fee of $1,000, and a police report may be filed with local authorities.

(The Permitted Period of Continuous Use, incidentally, is 24 hours.)

In order to get that $25 discount, then, an unbanked person in Washington has to first open a bank account; secondly get a credit card; and thirdly sign a contract under which they agree to pay $1,000 should their bike be lost or stolen or taken out for more than 24 hours. It’s not even clear that United Bank is promising to give a credit card to anybody who opens up a bank account under this scheme, but assume that they do: then they’re immediately putting the newly-banked individual into $50 of debt, with no real idea as to whether or when that debt will get paid off. Add in late fees and the like, and the $25 savings starts looking even less desirable.

Jim Surowiecki has a column on layaway this week; United Bank should take a leaf out of that book and offer their customers the opportunity to pay the $50 membership fee at a rate of say $4.25 per month, plus whatever usage fees are run up on the Bikeshare program.

Who, under that kind of continuous-layaway scheme, would take on the responsibility of paying $1,000 if a bike were to be lost or stolen? Bank on DC is the obvious organization to do such a thing. They should post a $10,000 bond to cover the first ten times this happens, see whether the scheme is any kind of success, and then take it from there. If there are lots of stolen bikes and the $10,000 disappears quickly, then the scheme would be an interesting failure — but organizations trying new ideas should be open to failure. And there’s a good chance that the $10,000 would not be touched at all.

What’s really needed, in other words, to get the unbanked onto bikeshare schemes is not bank accounts at all — it’s a way of finding institutions which will accept the responsibility of paying $1,000 should the bike be lost or stolen. If you do that, then memberships can be given out to individuals without bank accounts at all, and they can use any old prepaid card to pay the modest usage fees they run up, without worrying about the $101 hold.

Which institutions would do such a thing? Well, there are a lot of non-profit organizations which work with the poor and try to get them mobility — they’re a good place to start. But there’s another set of institutions which might be interested as well: churches, of which there are very many in the DC area. Churches know their flocks, after all, and might well be interested in giving out memberships to those who need them, and taking on a contingent liability in the process. All you’d need is a single credit card belonging to the church, which could then deal in its own way with any congregant who ran up that $1,000 charge.

The Capital Bikeshare scheme has been built in a very cautious manner, carefully constructed so that everybody with a membership needs to have a credit card associated with that membership. That in turn allows Capital Bikeshare to be sure that it can collect $1,000 every time a member loses their bike for whatever reason. This system was set up ex ante, with no indication of how often such a fine would turn out to be necessary — and it has essentially excluded the unbanked from Bikeshare.

I would much have preferred to see an optimistic scheme at first, with the restrictions coming in later if the cost of lost or stolen bikes turned out to be substantial. But even now it’s possible to imagine ways around these problems, if some well-intentioned group has faith in its members and in the Bikeshare scheme. The Bank on DC promotion, however, is not such a way.

*Update: It seems that the website is wrong about this: you can use a debit card to pay for a 30-day or 1-year membership, and when you do so no hold is put on your account. On top of that, Bank on DC also has a scheme to help defray the $1,000 cost if your bike is lost or stolen. More details as I get them!

Update 2: Details, from Bikeshare:

  • You can pay for 30-day and annual membership with a debit card.
  • There is no hold on an individual’s account if they purchase a 30-day or annual membership with a debit card. The reason for this is that Bikeshare has contact information (name, address, etc.) when an individual signs up online for one of these types of memberships — but not for 24-hour or 3-day members.
  • If the bike is stolen and no police report is filed, Bikeshare would charge the debit card $1,000. If the individual who is responsible for the bike does not have $1,000 in their account, Bikeshare would charge the amount available in the account and work with the financial institution to ensure no subsequent charges can be made to the account until there is a full reimbursement for the cost of the bike.
  • Approximately 85 percent of annual members do not incur any usage fees when riding. The average usage fee the other 15 percent incur is between $6-$7 per individual per month.

Bikeing and banking are two things which should both be expanded due to their obvious social merit.

Biking reduces congestion and pollution, and boosts health.

Banking increases access to capital and is a much better system of facalitating commerce than cash, coins, pawn shops, payday lenders, or loan sharks.

The issue I have with the unbanked or underbanked is that without direct goverment intervention there is no business model underwhich they can be profitably served by a bank.

All current evidence asside, banking is an inherantly profitable business. My community savings bank would not be much worse off if we were forced to open free debit card accounts or e-statement savings accounts for anyone who applied. Like all banks we depend on the implicit subsidy of FDIC insurance. Opening a few thousand unprofitable accounts seems like a fair tradeoff for that ongoing privelage.

Posted by y2kurtus | Report as abusive

Did wifi cause a rise in bus ridership?

Felix Salmon
Dec 26, 2011 16:49 UTC


What’s behind the rise in bus travel in recent years? It certainly seems very impressive, according to the latest research from DePaul University.

Here’s how Bloomberg’s Jeff Plungis characterizes it:

Megabus.com and BoltBus led U.S. curbside bus companies that boosted trips by 32 percent this year as travelers opted to leave their cars behind and surf the Internet while traveling.

And here’s Matt Yglesias, with a slightly different take:

Like Duncan Black, I’m far from certain that the right way to understand this is actually as intercity bus trips substituting for intercity car rides. The way I would primarily interpret it is as these services leading to additional trips that wouldn’t otherwise have been taken. Instead of riding Amtrak to New York once a year, you ride the bus three times instead.

If you look at the data, Yglesias seems closer to the mark than Plungis. Could the massive 30% rise in curbside bus ridership be accounted for by the 1% fall in private autos? Possibly. But it’s more likely that something else is going on.


Both Plungis and Yglesias, I think, miss the elephant in the room, and the obvious reason why the DePaul measurements for bus ridership have been growing at such a startling rate. Here’s how the paper puts it:

The analysis we provide also excludes all “Chinatown operators,” which have significant different qualities than mainstream operators. As a general rule, those carriers listed on the GotoBus.com web site are considered for purposes of our study to be Chinatown operators. Many of these carriers do not invest in a brand identifiable by the paint scheme or insignia on their buses.

Indeed, DePaul specifically excluded the dramatic growth of California’s USAsia Bus Lines, just because they determined that it counted as a Chinatown operator.

The obvious theory, then, is that big operators like Megabus and Bolt Bus saw the huge success of the Chintaown bus market and saw an opportunity there. They brought in branding and professional marketing and wifi and much higher safety standards, and succeeded in taking a huge amount of market share from the Chinatown operators who were never part of the DePaul survey in the first place.

That theory is borne out by my own anecdotal experience: when my friends took the bus from New York to DC or Boston ten years ago, it was normally a Chinatown bus. Today, it’s more likely to be a Bolt Bus, or even a higher-end product like the Limoliner.

In other words, the DePaul data is consistent with total bus ridership actually staying constant, with the recognized curbside buses simply taking ridership share from unrecognized Chinatown operators. In reality, I suspect that bus ridership is growing. Just not nearly as fast as the DePaul paper would have you believe.

As for the much-vaunted wifi on these buses, it’s basically the same as the wifi on Amtrak, or from Gogo in-flight: in a word, crap. If you’re working on a laptop and can download emails or web pages in the background while reading or writing something else, then it’s fine. But it’s pretty much useless for people on iPads, where the lack of multitasking means you can’t read one thing and download something else at the same time.

It seems to me that the travel industry in general has done a very bad job of adjusting to the fact that most wifi-enabled devices these days are not laptops. I even stayed at one pretty high-end hotel in England, recently, which thought that providing an ethernet cable was a perfectly good alternative to providing wifi, and which didn’t have any kind of Airport Express devices or similar that it could lend out to guests who didn’t have ethernet ports on their computers or tablets.

So far, no one’s really cracked the problem of the mobile web — we’re still in a world where connecting to the internet when on the move is far too difficult, and needs to be configured (and often paid for) on a device-by-device basis. Companies like Lightsquared want to change that, but for the time being they’re vaporware, and I’m not holding my breath for them to arrive. Which means that for the time being it’s a bit of a stretch to say — as Plungis, for one, does — that the mobile web is actually changing the way we travel from city to city.


Your title is misleading: it’s not the wifi, it’s the new fish jumping into the chinatown bus pond. 10 years ago, Chinatown buses were awesome deals compared to greyhound, but lots of people either didn’t know about them or were culturally uncomfortable with buses that seemed to be for a particular demographic (chinese people or poor people). Now greyhound’s fares are much reduced and the new buses offer cultural acceptability. Wifi is window dressing.

Posted by colburn | Report as abusive

Chart of the day, NYC biking edition

Felix Salmon
Dec 10, 2011 18:44 UTC


This is a chart of the number of bike commuters in New York. It’s known as the NYC Commuter Cycling Indicator, and it comes from surveys taken ten times per year at predetermined points around the city. It doesn’t give a good count of the number of bike commuters in New York, but it gives an excellent idea of the trends: bike commuting has essentially quadrupled in the past decade, and has doubled over the past four years. Which just happen to be the four years during which Janette Sadik-Khan has run the Department of Transportation.

This is important because it shows just how effective strong leadership can be, when combined with a dedication to creating good infrastructure. And if you delve a bit into the numbers behind the indicator, this comes out even more clearly. For instance: in 2007, the Queensboro Bridge saw an average of 1,292 cyclists per day, about 80% of the 1,626 cyclists per day on the Brooklyn Bridge. By 2011, the Queensboro number had shot up to 2,904 bikers per day — 25% more than the 2,322 cyclists crossing the Brooklyn Bridge. That’s entirely a function of the fact that the Brooklyn Bridge is unpleasant for cyclists, despite the fact that by dint of its location it should be one of the busiest bike corridors in the city.

The lesson of this chart, then, is that if you build bike lanes, cyclists will appear to fill them. That’s fantastic news, since cities with lots of cyclists are always the most pleasant cities to live and work in — even for people who don’t bike themselves. New York City has a long way to go before it can be considered genuinely bike-friendly. But it’s moving in the right direction, and the bike-sharing scheme to be launched next year will provide a massive boost. Let’s hope that now Sadik-Khan has provided the necessary momentum, her successors embrace and extend what she has started.


I certainly remember the hundreds of New Yorkers leaving NYC on foot 9/11/01 after the two planes crashed into the World Trade Center towers. Those New Yorkers could have escaped the dust and smoke faster on bicycles and negotiated traffic jams by bike better than by car.

Posted by mariaconzemius | Report as abusive

Can TomTom help solve the congestion problem?

Felix Salmon
Dec 8, 2011 00:24 UTC

Traffic congestion is one of those problems to which there is no single silver-bullet solutions. If a city has too much congestion, the main thing it needs to do is build out much better public transportation infrastructure — something which takes many years and many billions of dollars. But failing that, or in the mean time, is there anything else?

Balaji Prabhakar reckons he can try to give prizes to people who drive at non-peak hours; it’s a cute idea, but I don’t think it scales. And then there’s congestion pricing, of course. But right now, there’s surprisingly little evidence that it actually works, and some evidence that it doesn’t, at least in the medium term: in London, congestion went up after it went down, and much of the small decline in congestion can be attributed to better public transportation rather than the congestion charge itself.

The people at GPS maker TomTom, however, have another idea about how to reduce congestion, at least at the margin. TomTom has a lot of Live devices, which are constantly transmitting their location; on top of that, every time the old-fashioned GPS devices get plugged in to a computer and upgraded, they also upload details of where they’ve been and when. And TomTom also has data from cellphone companies about how fast various phones are moving on certain streets at certain times of day.

Put it all together, and you get a very rich database of where to find congestion, both in terms of geography and in terms of time of the day and week.

This information can reduce congestion in one of two ways. Firstly, the information can directly change driver behavior. TomTom claims that it can reduce travel times by up to 15% — which obviously reduces overall congestion in and of itself a little bit, since that car is on the road for less time. And if we ever reach a point at which 10% of drivers are using that technology, then you see further benefits: enough cars get rerouted from busy to less-busy streets that the busy streets clear up a bit and move faster. Overall, TomTom reckons that congestion gets reduced for everybody by 5%, even if they’re not using any GPS device at all.

And then there’s bigger changes which can be made at the municipal level. TomTom has a whole business which sells congestion information to cities, which can then use that information to inform minor decisions like traffic-signal timings, and major ones like rebuilding roads. Historically, cities have needed clunky hardware like cameras and in-street loops to detect how much congestion there is; the TomTom data is cheaper than that, it’s much more precise, and it covers all roads rather than just the main arteries.

This is great news, right? Yesterday, for instance, we got detailed information on pedestrian congestion in NYC. The “pedestrian volume index” has now reached 113.2 from 100 in 2007, and we know about individual blocks with great specificity: on West 14th Street between Hudson and Eighth, for instance, there were 11,166 pedestrians per day between 4pm and 7pm in September, compared with 8,911 in May and 7,055 the previous September.

That’s very useful information — but it pales in usefulness when compared to equally detailed information on automotive congestion. Finally, we can settle once and for all whether the pedestrianization of Broadway has resulted in higher or lower traffic speeds. We can find out what happens to congestion when bike lanes are installed. And we can measure congestion overall in the city, with an eye to working out how much the deadweight cost of congestion is, and whether some kind of congestion charge might make sense. Most obviously, the real-time TomTom data is good enough that it can and should be used to adjust traffic signals in real time, as and when traffic jams appear.

So, is this happening? Turns out, that question is very difficult to answer. I spoke to a couple of TomTom executives three weeks ago, and they told me that they had done a little study, just for their own edification, on the Herald Square area, to see what happened to traffic speeds there when Broadway got pedestrianized. I asked if they would send it to me, and they said that they’d be happy to — they just wanted to check with the city of New York first.

And then, last week, I was told that a New York Department of Transportation Deputy Commissioner asked TomTom not to share its data with me.

TomTom is still looking for some data, somewhere in the world, that it can share with me — but I don’t have anything yet. And this data is very hard to find, for anybody outside TomTom: the company informs me that even TomTom’s own non-profit, The Traffic Foundation, which says that it will be “tapping into TomTom’s community of 50 million users”, has no access at all to this wonderful and enormous traffic database, which now has more than 4 trillion datapoints.

If this data were a little more public, researchers could plug away at it to see what the effects of infrastructure changes are on congestion, for instance, and to help create a set of best practices for what kind of interventions get the best congestion-reduction bang for the buck. But that doesn’t seem to be happening. And TomTom is very quiet indeed about which municipalities have bought its data, and what those municipalities are doing with it.

There’s an amazing opportunity, here, to use advanced statistical and quantitative techniques to painlessly improve city life: it’s exactly the kind of thing that the TED people got so excited about when they decided to award their TED Prize to The City 2.0. But I worry that TomTom is keeping this data far too close to its chest, and that cities like New York are similarly unhappy about the idea that it might become public in any way.

Of course, TomTom is a public company, with an obligation to its shareholders to maximize the amount of money that it can generate from its database. And it doesn’t want to annoy potential clients, especially not when its share price has been bumping along at very low levels for the past couple of years. Sooner or later this information is bound to start getting used widely — can’t Google just buy TomTom, already, and make it much more public? The entire company, after all, has a market capitalization of less than a billion dollars. The profit motive, here, shouldn’t get in the way of the massive public good that can come from this database.


don’t forget for a minute that this is all a very complex band-aid. traffic volume will continue to grow and absorb all the savings you get from better routing around congestion. at some point, the road system with all its smartly guided vehicles will fill up again and the question of systemic shift to transit, different land use patterns, road pricing, etc etc will all have to be confronted again with much less wiggle room.

Posted by AnthonyTownsend | Report as abusive

Parking datapoints of the day

Felix Salmon
Nov 17, 2011 18:55 UTC


Emily Badger has found a fantastic paper (not online, sadly) from the University of Connecticut. Authors Chris McCahill and Norman Garrick took aerial photographs of New Haven, Hartford, and Cambridge, and started counting up the number of off-street parking spaces over time.

There’s a general tendency, in American cities, for the number of parking spots to rise inexorably — and that’s exactly what happened in New Haven and Hartford. As McCahill and Garrick write:

If places were to grow, it was assumed that most of the growth would be served by automobile, so new development would require supplemental parking facilities. In the city of Hartford, Connecticut, city officials stated in 1972 that, “the most critical improvement to [neighborhood shopping districts] which could be made at this time is the provision of off-street parking facilities”. In 1982, responding to the claim that his city had more parking than any other Connecticut city, New Haven Mayor Biagio DiLieto stated that he was “strongly committed to maintaining and improving parking facilities for workers, shoppers, and visitors in the downtown area”.

The authors add, waspishly:

Applying this thinking to U.S. cities, without knowing any other information, one would expect that the cities with the greatest increases in parking over the past fifty years have also experienced the greatest growth of development and activities. And conversely, the cities in which parking has not increased substantially might be struggling to achieve growth.

Of course, that’s not what happened at all. New Haven had 21,690 parking spots in 1951, and 106,410 in 2009; Hartford went from 47,000 to 141,000 in the same time period. But both were shrinking, rather than growing, in population.

Meanwhile, Cambridge took a different tack, and decided in 1985 to essentially ban the creation of any new parking spots. That decision marked the beginning of a reversal in its population trend: it started growing quite impressively. Here’s the chart:


Parking lots are — with only a handful of exceptions — the best possible way of destroying a city’s soul. They’re gruesome, lifeless places, and I’m constantly astonished by the way in which governments and developers are convinced that they’re a great idea. Instead, local government should act as a brake on private developers’ desires to build out new parking: while that might (or might not) be good for an individual commercial operation, it can at the same time be bad for the city as a whole. Cambridge is living proof that this can be done: other cities, including New Haven and Hartford, should follow its lead.


I live in Baltimore. Significant parts of the downtown have been turned into high-rise parking garages by developers. Where once there were drug stores, local restaurants, dry cleaners, candy shops, etc., there are now brick facades housing cars. The friendliness of the streets has warped into a sense of threat. One can drive down Lombard St and feel they are in a brick corridor. Where people used to shop, walk and converse, there are just cars and brick walls of garages. One of the things that parking lots and garages do to a poorly planned or developer, profit-oriented city is visually destroy it. The quality of visual life, alone, matters. The garages of Baltimore are a clear example of how something needed for city development, rather than promoting it, results in alienation for visitors and citizens alike.

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Market failure of the day, Connecticut commuter department

Felix Salmon
Oct 25, 2011 04:40 UTC

Shelly Banjo’s article about the multi-year waiting lists for parking spots at Connecticut train stations is going somewhat viral, for good reason:

The waiting list for a Fairfield Parking Authority permit has 4,200 people and stretches past six years…

“It’s like season tickets to the Giants—even when you’re dead they get passed down to your children,” said Jim Cameron, head of the Connecticut Rail Commuter Council…

Connecticut’s parking crunch is, in large part, a problem of supply and demand: More than 60,000 commuters head toward Manhattan on Metro-North’s New Haven train line on weekdays, but transportation officials say stations have public parking for nearly 20,000…

John Eck, a former television executive from Fairfield, kept his permit after he left his job last spring—”just in case” he needed to start commuting again.

“You hear horror stories of people missing the renewal deadline and losing the permit in other towns,” Mr. Eck said. “I wouldn’t give it up for anything.”

Eugene Colonese, the transportation department’s rail administrator, said the task force “came to a certain point and well, stopped its work for a little while.”

He said the department is still “looking for the best way to get commuters to stations, a balance we think will be between building more transit-oriented development, looking at shuttles and other public transportation, as well as parking improvements.”

The parking lot at Fairfield train station is big enough for 1,053 cars; the station sees 2,942 people, on average, ride in to NYC, and the waiting list now has 4,278 names on it. These are all big numbers. The price for a spot, however, is low: just $340 per year. Obviously, that’s well below market, and causing all manner of problems. But there’s another number that’s lower still:

We recently spoke to Director of the Fairfield Parking Authority, Cynthia Placko…

Placko told us there isn’t room for many more than the 24 bike lockers that are already there, and those are totally filled.

My guess is that it really isn’t all that hard to take the space given over to 1,053 parking spots and use it effectively to house transportation for 2,942 people. Unless, that is, those people are all taking up the space of some enormous SUV.

In a place like Fairfield, it’s hard to raise the price of parking so much that you start to incentivize car-sharing directly. So here’s my proposal: rip out a bunch of car spaces, and replace them with covered, secure parking for bicycles and scooters. Maybe motorbikes, too. Surely that’s an obviously better way of getting commuters to stations than giving them each a couple of hundred square feet of massively underpriced prime Connecticut real estate, and then acting shocked when they flock to the opportunity.

Update: Fairfield could even buy back parking slots for more than they were sold for, and convert them to two-wheeled parking. Continue to do that until there’s one empty two-wheeled parking space. And then auction off the rest to the highest bidders.


A parking garage is about $4M to build. That’s only $1k per person in the queue.

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