Uber and Mass Transit: Complements in Conflict

Since I last analyzed cab shares in the outer borough taxi data, bloggers at FiveThirtyEight and Market Urbanism have written about how taxis interact with mass transit.

Nate Silver and Reuben Fischer-Baum first noticed the complementary nature of Uber and mass transit. Rather than stealing customers from mass transit in a competitive way, Uber and mass transit should be seen as two members of the basket of transportation goods someone who doesn't own a car is using. In this way, usage of Uber and mass transit will both go up as private car ownership goes down.

Jeff Fong at Market Urbanism continued this reasoning to state that Uber is actually solving the "last mile problem" of mass transit. He says that not only are Uber and mass transit being used to complement each other in the long run (meaning, today I can choose to take Uber or the subway to get downtown), but they are complements within a single trip. He goes on to explain that what matters is density. This sort of interaction works in New York because of its density, and wouldn't have the same effect in LA or Houston. I've anecdotally seen this happen in Boston, a dense city with a smaller mass transit system. There, Uber functions more like an every day form of transit, while in New York it is more of a luxury good.

My analysis shows that this dynamic between cabs and transit predates Uber. New York's transit is amazing, but has largely stopped growing in recent years (next week's new 7 train station is the first one opening in my lifetime.) Development and population growth have continued despite transit's lack of growth. Given this growing demand in the outer boroughs and fixed supply, it's no wonder informal arrangements with cab companies came about before the technology was there to support it.

Jeff Fong was right to focus on density being conducive to alternative transportation modes, but I'd continue his line of reasoning to say that the real problem is the disconnect between transit development, real estate development, and population dynamics. The New York City subways were originally built through farmland, in anticipation of a growing city. Now, it's difficult to build a line through the most dense neighborhoods in the city, which does not bode well to providing expansion where it's truly needed: in the fringes.

There needs to be a new relationship forged between mass transit and development. Development should be happening organically as population grows, and the infrastructure to support that population needs to expand alongside it. We shouldn't be building subways based on where people are living now, we should be building subways in preparation for people 50 years from now.

If mass transit organizations don't do this, Uber will be extremely happy to fill in that demand. Uber is extremely convenient, but there's value to having this demand be filled locally. The relationship between commuters and cabbies on these streets evolved organically. What started out as a few frustrated commuters deciding to take a cab instead of the bus led cabbies to more frequently monitor the bus routes. Over time, the demand was so great that a cab share agreement spontaneously developed.

Uber is a one size fits all organization. It's aiming to be the department of transportation for the world. It's revolutionary, but it will absolutely kill these informal relationships. This is where local departments of transit should be aiming. They should be developing locally to fill in these gaps, and I'm afraid that they'll whither away in the face of Uber if they don't.

When private cars first became adopted, this unfulfilled demand expressed itself in auto-dominated sprawl. Now that we're on the cusp of a new transportation paradigm, we should encourage our mass transit organizations to correct the mistakes of the past, or they will be pushed to the side by Uber just as they were pushed to the side by the private car.
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Mapping New York's Hidden Transit Demand

Traditional transit in New York is fairly easy to monitor, and newer systems such as CitiBike share their data publicly for analysis. The city's transit mix is much more complicated however, and to truly get an idea of what's going on you need to analyze more informal systems. The New Yorker recently surveyed the city's informal dollar van system. You can easily see the established routes making their way through traditionally underserved areas.

I was interested in an even more informal and less well defined system: taxi shares. Companies like Uber and Lyft did not discover cab sharing, they simply provided a way to formalize it. Before these technologies existed, those in the know could simply wait by a bus stop and expect a livery cab to come more frequently than a city bus. Once the cab fills up, each passenger pays $2, and gets taken to the nearest subway station.

I knew this informal arrangement existed on 108th St in Forest Hills, roughly between the Long Island Expressway and the Forest Hills-71st express stop, and was curious if it existed elsewhere. The smaller scale nature of it would make it harder to find established routes. Now that borough taxis have been centralized, taxi GPS data can now be reliably collected for the outer boroughs. Thanks to the legwork Chris Whong did FOILing the data, I was able to visualize potential routes.

Using trips during the month of June 2014, I searched for cab rides that ended at subway stations. I limited my search to the morning rush hour (7AM - 10AM), since it's easier for spontaneous routes to develop when everyone is heading to a central subway station. 

To try to establish a pattern, I first checked out the route along 108th St I knew about:

108th Street pretty clearly shows up as a cluster. Looking at other stops, guesses can be made about where similar cab sharing might be going on. Two stops down in Kew Gardens, for example, a stronger pattern emerges coming from the south, and potentially the east:

In addition to smaller express stops, there was a similar pattern around the terminus at Ditmars:

And Clark St, which seems to be an alternative to the F and G lines in South Brooklyn:

Major express stops would probably require a bit more research. Roosevelt Ave in Jackson Heights for example had a large volume of cabs flowing towards it:

There could perhaps be a few routine lines here, but it seems a bit more evenly spread out. You can see a similar pattern with Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn:

And E 180th Street in the Bronx:

Check out the full map below(or click here to open in a new window). Click on the stations to filter cabs terminating there and try to find anything I missed. I'd be interested to hear from anyone who has experience with these shares!
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My Entry to the Bank of England's Data Visualization Competition

I recently completed a project for The Bank of England's Data Visualization Contest as part of their "One Bank Research Agenda." You can look at the original page, or check out the embedded viz below:

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CitiBike's Open Data Reveals the Future of Transportation in New York

Due to the nature of its usage, CitiBike has some of the most granular data available. Unlike a shared service like the subway, every single ride has a record, leading to some unique insights.

Not only is every ride logged: the system itself is incredibly open ended. While transit hubs exist for a reason, looking at public transit usage patterns can magnify the importance of these hubs.

Slicing out the weekdays, I aggregated the trips by station and hour. Subtracting the number of bikes leaving each station from the number of bikes arriving led to a "flow" of bikes to and from each station. In the map, you'll see reds when more bikes are coming in and blues when more bikes are leaving. Below is what I came up with, animated by the hour:

There are a few interesting patterns here.

Going into this I expected to see a more traditional flow into Midtown and the Financial District. In addition to these classic office districts, the entirety of Central Manhattan gets included in the rush hour pattern. Newer, younger, and more creative offices can be found from Chelsea to SoHo. Since CitiBike arguably trends towards younger and more creative types, these areas get over represented on the map. 

My personal rush hour strategy was also confirmed: in an attempt to find available stations in Midtown, I go closer to Grand Central, in order to take advantage of people doing a Metro North to CitiBike commute.

The average weekend, as expected, doesn't have a strong rush hour effect... unless you count the late night rush hour to the East Village:

These patterns have a few implications. Looking at CitiBike demand shows just how decentralized the demand for transit really is. Public transit traditionally focuses on hubs, and encourages use towards dense centers. CitiBike allows users to go wherever they want within the zone. Given this option, people will take advantage.

There isn't much variety in classic transit options: there previously wasn't an option between a fixed public transit system and private cars. I've written in the past about how different transit options are beginning to get bundled, and how innovation at Uber and Lyft are giving people more choice. Instead of a fixed bundle, a sliding scale of convenience versus price is evolving. 

In addition to more choices, technology is reducing the friction between different modes of transportation. New systems like CitiBike allow biking to be more easily combined with rail (according to the new CEO of the company behind CitiBike, he'd like to even further remove friction by unifying systems across cities.) Public transit apps allow users to more easily coordinate between different types of transit, in New York allowing people to more easily catch feeder buses into transit hubs.

Taken together, these innovations are allowing alternative transportation modes to approach the level of convenience of private cars. CitiBike and apps like Uber are completely decentralized, no longer restricting travel between points outside of the central city, while traditional public transit innovations is widening its footprint, and allowing more users further from stations to be served.

Where can this go next?

So far these advances are working really great for Manhattan and Brownstone Brooklyn, but they could be expanded further out into the boroughs. Alongside tech friendly advances in the city, low tech innovations have been occurring in the boroughs. Express buses fill in the gaps between the subways, and there's an entire shadow transit system, from dollar vans to informal $2 cab shares. Properly analyzed, these can bring into focus the hidden demand that the MTA isn't currently fulfilling. CitiBike mini-networks for example can begin surrounding subway termini, increasing the service area and allowing a cheap way to travel point to point around the outer boroughs.

Over the long run, this would hopefully increase the supply of urban land throughout New York. Less dense areas between subway termini could be "filled in." As more people are using more decentralized modes of transit, these areas could begin to support more urban amenities. Allowing denser development in these areas would complete the virtuous cycle.

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The Future of Power: Scale Matters

Fusion reactors. Real life has finally caught up to Sim City.

I'm excited about this from a technological standpoint, even though I don't know enough about the history of its development. The last paragraph is what caught my eye the most:

Five years after that, they expect to have a fully operative model ready to go into full-scale production, capable of generating 100MW—enough to power a large cargo ship or a 80,000-home city—and measure 23 x 42 feet, so you "could put it on a semi-trailer, similar to a small gas turbine, put it on a pad, hook it up and can be running in a few weeks."

The key is the scale. This is something that can work on the scale from a large vehicle to a small city.

Modern energy development so far has always been large scale. Large scale fossil fuel plants, large scale oil delivery infrastructure, large scale nuclear power plants, large scale power grids. One of the key differences not being talked about with the changing energy landscape is how the scale is changing. Wind farms and solar farms exist, but especially for solar the major push has been for personal solar panels. 

Here is something that falls in the middle. Smaller cities and larger vehicles seem to be the perfect candidate for a power source of this size.

Overall, this means that in the future there will be no magic bullet to wean us off fossil fuels. What we'll end up with is a more nuanced mix. Consider the below hypothetical situation based on medium scale fusion reactors being added to our energy mix:

In this case, you can see how this new energy mix will shuffle out. Starting at the bottom, solar energy will probably remain the most efficient way to power individual homes. More people will have the option to disconnect from the grid and become completely self sufficient on their own.

For the next step up, small towns would be at the perfect scale for Fusion Power. This setup too would allow the option of connecting to the grid. One could imagine this as homesteading on a grander scale. A community of like minded people might come together and purchase their own fusion reactor, or a development company may specialize in building small self sufficient communities for a niche market.

For large scale farming and light industrial regions, renewables become cheaper once again. In this case, wide tracts of land can double as power generation. In addition to fields of crops or out of the way warehouse locations, there can be fields of windmills or solar farms. Once again, these types of regions would have the option to plug into the power grid.

Last at the high population end of the spectrum you have large cities. These cities will have no choice but to stay connected to the grid. While efficient on a per capita basis, their density prohibits these smaller scale energy sources. They would have to source their energy from elsewhere. I use fossil fuels here in the cost curve, but of course any electric grid is going to include a mix of power sources. Until transmission and storage are improved (and if solar powered jet fuel becomes a thing, it will be,) fossil fuels are going to be most efficient at this end.

Looked at this way, one of the reasons why the fight for renewables has always been cast as big business vs little people becomes immediately apparent. Large corporations will do whatever is profitable. If renewable energy is profitable, then that is what we'll get. The problem isn't that it's not profitable, but it's not profitable at the scale that these companies currently operate at.
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The Problem of Measuring Average Neighborhood Housing Prices

Even today, it's very normal to see high double digit housing price numbers in New York neighborhoods.The thought recently came to me however of new developments' effects on prices and what this means to homeowners.

Without taking development into account, housing prices get skewed. If newer buildings are added, the average price of a house will not be a reliable indicator of how an individual property is expected to perform. 

To see how unclear this sort of measure makes things, consider a neighborhood with a group of equal units worth $300,000 each. Over a period of time, those units increase to $310,000. During that same period, the housing stock increases by 25%. and these new units are of higher quality and worth $600,000. 

The average price of this neighborhood is now $368,000, and one would be tempted to say housing prices have increased by 23%. While true, this has absolutely no bearing on what will happen to your individual house. Based on the evidence, all one can say about the neighborhood is house prices increased by 3%,

This sort of mismeasurement has several implications. Expensive new development leads to a price differential between new and old units. This is a direct causal link between new development and increasing prices in existing units, which may or may not be counteracted by the increasing supply further satisfying demand.

More importantly, this does something to the psychology of real estate. In an area with increasing housing values and at least some development, the average price of a neighborhood will ALWAYS overestimate what's actually happening to each individual house. But, you can be sure that developers will point to this number when trying to sell $600,000 units. 

Overall it just proves how important it is to really think about what measurements mean. Something that may seem clear may actually be systematically misrepresenting what you truly would like to know, and uncovers unseen mechanisms in a market. 
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A Few Thoughts on Satellite Sourced Economic Data

Ever since Richard Florida cited this data set in Who's Your City, I knew this was both a novel way to look at economic data, and would have problems that need to be sorted out. Florida just wrote a feature about this data set for city lab, and it really highlights a few of the easy improvements that can be done to improve this data. With a little training, this can very accurately predict economic activity.

The first paragraph highlights one of the first problems one would run into:

Looking at aerial images of nighttime lights can tell us a surprising amount about human activity on the ground. Satellite images of the world at night have been used to see how North Korea's political isolation has left its residents in the dark, and how Texas's booming oil industry has spread across the landscape. As Yale University economist William Nordhaus has noted, roughly 3,000 studies have used nighttime lights as a proxy for various economic activities just since 2000. 
Looking at a picture of Texas they linked to in another article, the difference between these sorts of economic activity becomes apparent:

The potential problem this can cause is explained further into the piece:

Their research found that the satellite data correlated more strongly with population density than with economic measures, finding close statistical associations between luminosity levels and population levels, population density, the number of establishments, and the number of employees. But the satellite data were considerably less accurate in estimating for a key measure of the level of economic activity—wages. Based on a geographically weighted regression analysis, they found that nighttime light levels overestimated wages for the largest cities like Stockholm, Gothenburg, and Malmo, where together more than 40 percent of Sweden’s population resides. In contrast, satellite images generally underestimated wages for smaller towns and rural areas.

My first impression of this statement is what would lead someone to think wages are correlated with light levels within a country? I could definitely think of reasons why wages would be correlated with light levels when comparing countries, and would definitely be useful in comparing wages between urban and rural areas. When comparing urban areas within a country however, I'm not surprised smaller cities are underrepresented. I definitely believe that, within the same country, larger cities would have higher wages than smaller cities. I simply think that this is not proportional to the amount of light you emit. To put it another way, adding one more household to a small city will have a greater impact on the light output than adding one more household to a large city, since larger cities are more efficient.

This may seem unrelated to the energy economy in Texas, but that picture allows me to highlight how to fix this problem. The new energy economy in the United States is perhaps one of the biggest examples of economic activity taking a unique spatial form in a very short time. Over a period of years, the prospect of fossil fuel independence became very real for North America.

The pinprick pattern of energy development would be very easy to pick apart from more general urban economic activity. Combined with existing data of well production (full disclosure: I work for a company that could provide this data!) A computer could look at these satellite images and automatically pick up energy regions.

This is a very clear example, but this could also be used to try to improve this model for wages. Once again, there's a fairly clear pattern: smaller cities are getting overestimated and larger cities are getting underestimated. One could train a model to pick out contiguous metro areas, measure their size, and properly control for the efficiency effect I hypothesized above.

In this way, satellite data can be fine tuned to the economic concepts we want to. Premise has done amazing work in analyzing pictures to track price and quality of goods data across the developing world. With a similar sort of evolving model, other macro concepts can be predicted as well.

One more thing satellite data could be used for is determining whether growth is "healthy." In Cities and the Wealth of Nations, Jane Jacobs explains 5 ways city regions can grow. When they act in concert, they can transform formerly inert land into economically productive city economies. When they act in an unbalanced way, they lead to economic imbalances that may seem healthy in the short term, but in the long run are damaging and can only lead to ruin.

In the context of satellite data, this sort of balanced city growth should have a very noticeable pattern. There's a reason why slime molds can accurately predict train systems. If done in a healthy way, balanced growth should follow an organic pattern.

Compared to organic looking cities, the growth in the US energy sector seems very haphazard at first glance. Using Jacob's categorization, these regions look like supply regions, which instead of replacing their imports become addicted to the outside city economic activity that led to its founding. Some of the effects of this are positive: Texas and North Dakota have some of the healthiest job markets in the country, but it won't lead to long lasting economic development, and once this activity dries up, the regions will return to inert and we'll have a lot of upset unemployed oil workers.
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