Industrial Houston and packets/cars vs. circuits/transitA couple quick pass-alongs tonight. The first is from a Joel Kotkin editorial in the Wall Street Journal on the myth of deindustrialization in America, which argues that manufacturing is alive and well in this country. A couple paragraphs on Houston:
The second pass-along is from Bob Poole's Surface Transportation Innovations newsletter at the Reason Foundation. The specific story is "Why Cars Beat Transit: Packets vs. Circuits", which I found to be a fascinatingly insightful analogy, albeit a bit nerdy. In its entirety:
In Houston, not only is employment in the energy industry up, there's also a growing manufacturing sector and an expanding port complex, which together have contributed to a more than 10% increase in jobs over the past three years. "Everything's now hitting on all cylinders," suggests Bill Gilmer, a Houston-based economist from the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. He adds that other parts of Texas — Dallas, Midland-Odessa, Corpus Christi — are also experiencing rapid growth, particularly in exploration and oil services. While engineers and geologists are at or near the top of the food chain, manufacturing compensation averages $80,000 — $20,000 more than in information and financial services, and more than three times that in retail.
Broad-based growth of this kind in the manufacturing and allied sectors is intimately tied to infrastructure. Houston has recently completed a major expansion of its port, with an investment of $2 billion. Its airport is undergoing a $3.1 billion upgrade, and an additional $65 billion in road and transit projects are being planned for completion by 2025. Such infrastructure investment should be regarded as critical to a regional economy, as Minneapolis is no doubt learning now.
Why Cars Beat Transit: Packets vs. CircuitsHave a great weekend in (extremely) Tropical Texas...
For months I've been meaning to write about an impressive paper from the Kennedy School of Government, "The Impacts of Commuter Rail in Greater Boston." It's based on a longer paper by Eric Beaton that was awarded the Howard T. Fischer Prize in Geographical Information Science, for the best use of GIS by a Harvard graduate student. In his research Beaton used GIS to analyze the relationship between rail transit station location and transit use. He found that "In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, commuter rail service played a major role in shaping the land uses in the communities it served. But that does not seem to be the case today. . . . Looking to the future, this means that providing new commuter rail facilities is not likely to produce significant changes in travel and land use patterns." (www.ksg.harvard.edu/rappaport/downloads/policybriefs/commuter_rail.pdf)
I held off writing about this paper because I despaired of its being able to persuade those not already convinced that rail transit has only very limited potential. So many elected officials, in particular, seem to have concluded that getting people out of their cars is (only) possible with snazzy new rail transit, so we must forge ahead, despite the enormous cost and very modest results in most cases. This seems to have become more of a belief than a reasoned conclusion. And against a belief system, what good is evidence?
But last week I read a commentary that provided one of those "Aha!" moments. Stephen Fleming, chief commercialization officer at Georgia Tech, wrote it for the Georgia Public Policy Foundation. Fleming uses the power of analogy, explaining the historic development of telecommunications on the basis of switched circuits. In "legacy" telecom systems, all the way through the failed ISDN of a decade ago, a voice or data message required its own, exclusive pair of copper wires, from origin to destination, with numerous switching steps along the way. But then a few pioneers invented packet switching, in which a voice or data message is broken up into individual data packets, with each one routed independently to its destination, making use (simultaneously with zillions of others' packets) of the entire network of possible connecting paths. Packet switching is what made the Internet possible: it's faster, more flexible, and ultimately much cheaper than circuit switching, though it requires lots of processing power.
As Fleming goes on to write, "The analogy is obvious: Mass transit systems are circuits. Automobiles are packets. Packet switching always beats circuit switching." He goes on to explain that mass transit means capital-intensive routes with minimal flexibility. But with automobiles, every "packet" goes into a large network to be routed direct to its destination. Especially when those destinations are door-to-door-to-door-to-door, as in so many people's trip-chaining commutes. (You can read Fleming's complete commentary at www.gppf.org.)
On second thought, perhaps this analogy is too abstract for non-techie elected officials. But it should be persuasive to the business leaders who end up on task forces devoted to solving urban transportation problems. Just remember: packets beat circuits.