Vision 28

How would you measure the safety of private motor vehicle travel?

Let’s agree to focus on fatalities. Serious injuries are also important, but all the points I am going to make hold equally as well for injuries as for fatalities. Continue reading “Vision 28”

Spend on windshield insurance instead of a better car alarm system

Crime Scene

Recently our car was broken into, despite being parked in what I thought was a relatively safe place. While getting the broken window replaced, I learned that a key consideration when designing car windows is that they shatter safely, so as not to injure passengers. Car windows are not primarily designed to keep the crooks out; in fact the police officer who inspected our car was surprised that the burglars apparently needed to hit our window more than once in order to break it.

A corollary is that car windows are easy to replace. If you design something to break, you might as well make it easy to swap. Many car windows are apparently held in place by just two little hinges (as is ours) and the entire replacement process takes 15 minutes.

What this means is that you are probably better off paying for optional “glass insurance” than you are for a better car alarm system. If someone wants to break into your car, the alarm is not going to stop them. It might even lead them to damage the door or other parts of the car that are more expensive to repair than the window ?

In Australia, even “comprehensive” insurance packages do not usually cover damage to windows or windshields. In our case this is an optional extra that costs around $60/year. It turns out that each window costs around $200 to replace (the deductible is typically around $500). So at least to me, this seems a worthwhile extra to pay for.

Crime on Melbourne’s Rail System and the Abuse of Statistics

In today’s headline news, the Auditor General reports that the crime rate is falling on Melbourne’s train system (e.g., see here and here). The number of incidents has remained roughly the same, while the number of commuters has gone up. So, the Transport Minister says there is more crime but the trains are safer . The Auditor General seems concerned that “Victoria Police had failed to carry out promised pilot projects designed to minimise passenger perceptions of danger on railway stations and trains”. Shouldn’t they be catching crooks instead of manipulating customer perception?

Well, if we want to play this game of statistics, here are a few additional things to consider. Many crimes probably go unreported raising questions about data reliability, but lets put that aside for a moment. The Age reports that the crime rate on Melbourne’s trains is 33 per million passengers. I did a quick web search and wow! that figure seems to be pretty high. In Boston last year there were 827 major crimes on the MBTA system out of 350 million trips, making that only 2.2 crimes per million, way below the 33 in Melbourne. Even if we only consider assaults as “serious crimes”, which TheAge reports is 17% of the incidents, that works out to 5.6 assaults per million trips. I don’t have time to find data for lots of other cities, but it appears the New York subway carries over 10 million passengers/day and sees only 5.6 crimes per day, while on the Washington Metro it is about 4.35 per million riders. Is Melbourne’s train system really that safe?

A more sensible approach is to accept that crime happens on the train/subway systems of every major city, and to try and tackle the problem. Statistics could be used constructively. For a start, explore the distribution of criminal activity. Melbourne’s trains radiate outwards from the city center and some train lines go through neighborhoods that are much more crime ridden than others. So we should be looking at the rate of criminal activity on each line separately instead of the average across the whole system. Even better, identify the location and type of criminal activity in each line segment and station, and do data mining to figure out behavioural patterns. This should inform counter measures, e.g., by putting officers on duty, adding surveillance cameras, anticipating risky situations, etc. This way, the Police might even earn the respect of commuters, instead of just hoping to manipulate their perceptions of safety.

Eyjafjallajökull and substitutes for air travel

After teaching a class last night during which we discussed substitutes, I realized that the recent eruption by Eyjafjallajökull, while sad for all involved, presents a good teaching example. The exogenous elimination of air travel led predictably to a scramble for substitutes. Eurostar ran out of capacity and quadrupled their ticket prices; a black market also naturally emerged. Meanwhile bus companies, facing more rivals than Eurostar, kept the same price but temporarily boosted the number of buses they ran. Taxi drivers cashed in on customers including John Cleese who paid $5000 for his ride. I couldn’t help but reflect upon our trip to Japan last month, where we enjoyed riding on the Shinkansen bullet train. The ride was quick and smooth, there were no long waits at security lines and elaborate rituals at airports, legspace was ample, and our electronic equipment did not have to be switched off during takeoff and landing. Air travel is overrated.

Japanese Shinkansen

Welcome to Qantas – could you please step on the scale?

Today, an anonymous guest post (from someone with an ANU connection) ponders airline pricing.

A recent article in the SMH reports that from February 1, Air France and KLM will begin charging obese passengers 75% of the cost of a second seat if they cannot fit into one seat. This story re-ignited an interesting question I’ve had regarding airline tickets. I have always been perplexed by the issue of pricing after a trip to the Middle East.

After spending far too much money on carpets in the souks, I arrived at the check-in counter at the airport to be told that my ticket only allowed 25kg of baggage and that my recent acquisitions had sent me 5kg over. If I wanted to take them with me, I had to pay the surcharge. The exact amount escapes me, but I was told it was to cover the cost of transporting the extra weight.

What puzzled me about the explanation was that standing at the next check-in counter was a sizable chap (possibly around 110kg) with 25kg of luggage. He wasn’t charged excess since his luggage was on the allowable limit, but if the price of a ticket represents the cost of transporting weight; your weight, surely his net impact on the overall weight of the plane is far greater? (I’m an average male, 175cm tall and weighing around 78kg). With my luggage, my total weight on the plane was 108kg, much less than the 145kg of my fellow passenger.

Simple flight dynamics says that the heavier the plane, the more fuel it will use to fly. Presumably, most other costs of operating an aircraft are fixed (salaries for crew, catering, landing and docking levies, lease payments on the aircraft), which leaves fuel. If the largest variable cost of running a plane is determined by the fuel used to transport the overall weight (plane, passengers and luggage) of the aircraft at takeoff, surely the current pricing mechanism for airline tickets is economically inefficient?

Wouldn’t it be far more efficient to charge people based on their total weight impact on the plane (i.e. body weight plus baggage)? That way, slim travellers with little luggage do not subsidise heavier people with large amount of baggage.

Any theories as to whether the suggestion of our anonymous poster could – well – fly?

Google does it again

Everyday someone at Google says “wouldn’t it be neat if …” and then it happens. Today’s neat trick answers the question “wouldn’t it be neat if we could see where taxis were before calling the relevant cab company or stepping outside?” For the answer, click here.

Now you can find out the location of any cab and its phone number through the US. This is going to give new meaning to the movie line: “follow that cab.” You can now literally do it, ’24’ style.

It’s the other drivers, stupid

A new paper in the Journal of Political Economy by Aaron Edlin and Pinar Karaca-Mandic looks at the harm other drivers are causing you (in terms of higher insurance premiums). Here is the abstract: Continue reading “It’s the other drivers, stupid”

Planned congestion

[Link from Greeneconomics] Ed Glaeser advocates a form of congestion pricing for New York City traffic. This is similar to plans advocated by Stephen King and myself except that we don’t see any reason why it can’t be on all roads. (See my earlier post here and my Age op ed). Glaeser’s piece makes a nice point about how the London system was actually progressive (favouring lower income commuters). He writes:

Some critics of congestion charges argue that they are unfair to low income people, but in London, lower-income bus travelers were the charge’s biggest beneficiaries. Bus riders didn’t have to pay the charge and their travel times plummeted. As the time cost of bus travel fell, the number of bus passengers during morning hours increased by 38% (some of this is due to improved bus service provision). Like London, New York has many more people who commute by public transportation than by car, and New York’s many bus travelers would particularly benefit from a congestion charge reducing their commute times.

The five stages of traffic

At 5:40am this morning, a truck jacknifed on the Monash freeway outbound, knocked over a light and spilled oil onto all of inbound lanes. [Here is the account].

At 5: 50am I left my house to go inbound on the Monash freeway [yes, I know it is early but I like to do that to (ahem) avoid traffic]. At 5:55am I joined other commuters inbound at a standstill on the Monash where we sat for the next hour and a half before things cleared behind us and we turned around [the wrong way] and got off on the on ramp.

Now you get lots of interesting thoughts with this kind of experience. Here is a selection of mine:

  • (Denial) For the first 15 minutes or so of our experience, my fellow commuters and I kept our engines running thinking it was just a matter of time before we got going. This stopped after the first traffic report on the radio telling others to avoid the Monash and perhaps not go into work altogether (!) because it was going to be at least three hours before it was clear.
  • (Anger) This turned out to be more like frustration at the irony of my situation. If only I had left later I wouldn’t be in this. If only I had brought something to do. If only it was light out so I could read the one magazine (The Economist of course) that I had.
  • (Bargaining) This took the form of ringing people around the world that I thought might be up. Lots of voice mail sadly. Fortunately, someone called and that killed about 20 minutes. I saw others pleading with the front of the queue to move. I was eying the wholesale food truck wondering if they had any coffee.
  • (Depression) Listening to the radio and realising that in fact while all were inconvenienced, I was part of a small minority who would be stuck here all day. I wish I had bought a TV for the car. VW have a good thing coming putting internet connections into cars. Why did my damn iPod break?
  • (Acceptance) Just as I reached this stage, I saw cars behind me turning around. So I don’t have much to report there. But I had reached the stage that it could have been worse: I might have had to go to the bathroom, I might have had three kids in the car like that one person on the radio or my congestion tolling plan might have been put into place in which case I would have been paying through the roof for this. [In the end, I hadn’t reached the Citylink toll point so it was all ‘free’].

[Thanks to Richard Speed for spurring these thoughts].

Is public transport doomed?

In today’s Age, Alan Moran takes issue with my idea that we should price roads and use credits to fund public transport. He writes:

In his article (Business, 7/3), Joshua Gans suggested an approach involving road pricing and making public transport free, for which he accepts an estimate of costs at $340 million a year.

He believes these two policies could considerably relieve congestion. It might well make sense to charge more accurately for the costs of the road space used at the time of that use. This is notwithstanding that people already pay twice as much in fuel and registration taxes as governments spend on roads.

Basically, he doesn’t see a need to favour public transport as many (including myself) have been suggesting. It is hard to say. It is theoretically possible that the car is actually optimal. Equally, it is theoretically possible that we should ban cars altogether. The truth is in the middle but something worth searching for.

Personally I think hybrid systems of the sort we saw in Minority Report are likely to be the best. But now that is just fiction …