Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Redistricting

Such an unsexy topic. How do you create lasting party majorities in Congress? Gerrymander the crap out of your state in order to capture all of your geographically loyal supporters into your districts. And do so in a fashion that spreads them strategically, so as not to waste votes on larger-than-necessary landslides or futile attacks on strongholds of the opposition.

Why should you care? Because it means the existing political parties get to stack the deck in their favor, usually dependent on who's in power at the time redistricting rolls around. I live in the Fifth Congressional District of Illinois, a shape not consistent with any of the geometry I learned in high school. By my (admittedly haphazard) count this district has 257 sides, which would make it an irregular dihectapentacontakaiheptagon. If I had to guess, this shape came into being with an agenda attached. And that agenda means that my vote, and hence my voice, is being magnified or diminished based on someone else's prerogative. In other words, it's not fair.



So what to do? I had a productive shower this morning, and that's what got me thinking about the subject. While I fully realize that this may not be original, I thought that instead of letting it be arbitrary, we could create a restriction on the number of sides (lets say 6 max) a congressional district can have. Irregular state and natural boundaries (significant rivers, mountains, canyons, etc.) would only count as a single side. Districts would have to be nearly equal in population, and would have to remain contiiguous. This would still allow for long-narrow districts that might be distorted, but I think I'd leave that at the discretion of the lawmakers.

And what would this do? First, it would force candidates and Representatives as a whole to be more responsive to all of their constituents. With incumbency less assured, it might require a greater feel for compromise than what exists in this currently hyper-partisan political environment. And with a diffusion of localized special interests, the need to bring home the pork might be lessened to an extent. But most of all, it would simply be more fair. And that's a big selling point for me.

HCR Portability and Me

I spent the weekend amongst friends and family up in our neighbor to the north, Canada. While I was showering this morning I reflected on the visit, and on some of the conversations I had while I was there. As is typical with my family the talk turned to the political more than once, and there were several occasions when the US Healthcare system was discussed. But something that wasn't raised then, and isn't often elsewhere either, is the effect Healthcare portability could have on the economy at large.

This strikes close to home for me, as I've been only marginally employed for the past several months after being "impacted by Workforce Management" . And since this isn't the first time in my career that I've been on the sidelines, I tend to think about Healthcare portability often. Fact is, the tie-up of Healthcare with employers is an anchor on the mobility of workers. When coupled with the ever increasing management view that labor is a fungible commodity, this gives a large and undeserved negotiating lever to employers over the employed.

The HCR bills passed in the House and Senate would provide a salve for this situation. By requiring coverage without penalty for pre-existing conditions, the choice to leave a soul-killing job without having another immediately lined up becomes that much easier. By requiring large-pool individual purchase policies sold on exchanges, the incentives are in the right place for creating reasonably priced Healthcare on the open market. By taxing employers that don't provide employee insurance plans, there would be a more level playing field for comparing salary and benefit plans from one job to the next.

If it ever actually existed, the era of employment security is now long gone, and I do not mourn its passing. That said, many employees have been shackled to their jobs over Healthcare-related concerns for far too long, and many more have been cast adrift without adequate recourse as soon as their job and thus their Healthcare ended. Decoupling these links restores a small amount of power to the individual, where each person can decide to take or leave a job based on factors more relevant to their satisfaction and happiness. That should lead to greater productivity, more growth, and significantly higher quality of life.

Pass the Damn Bill Already.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Show us what you've got

On Tuesday, voters in the state of Massachusetts elected Republican Scott Brown to take the US Senate seat held by Ted Kennedy for 46 years. In the balance, the 60-seat Senate majority held by the Democratic Party will slide to 59, and the football that is Health Care Reform (HCR) is once again held by Lucy, with a nasty gleam in her eye.

I contacted my US Senators and Representative today, each of them a Democrat (I do live in Chicago after all), to see where they currently stand. I don't think it should be that difficult to get a straight answer, given that very similar bills have already passed the House and Senate, and the Congress is currently in conference to work out the differences. But so far the responses have been tepid, at best, with promises only to keep working the issue.

Here's what I think. The President has said he does not want to hold a vote on HCR before Senator-Elect Brown is seated. As far as I'm concerned, that's fine, and a decent means of proceeding in an adult fashion. But fuck all do I think it's ok to allow for a procedural filibuster to take hold after all the BS already surmounted just to get to this point.

So I propose a gentleman's compromise. Conference 24 hours a day to knock off the roughest edges on the two bills and morph them into something palatable within a week. Get all Democrats on board to shepherd the uni-bill through the shitstorm of process, and have it sitting on the floor waiting for a vote. Seat Senator Brown. After five minutes of handshakes, call for an "up or down" vote, and see where the chips fall.

The Senate is a majority-ruled institution for a damn good reason. Time to put the filibuster back in its place (that place being a rarely used tool to scream bloody murder when something egregiously appalling to the minority party is on its way to becoming law), and get Congress working once again. We have a unique opportunity to do exactly that before going about and changing the Senate rules to codify a neutered filibuster. Let's strap on a pair and get it done.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Simplify. Then Add Lightness.

That's perhaps my favorite quote, and it comes from Colin Chapman, one of the greatest automotive engineers to have lived. In four mundane words he captured the essence of both race car and aerospace engineering; above all else, make it reliable and make it light. And it's something I wish the major car manufacturers of our time would take more seriously.


Our cars have become beasts. Power this, heated that, networked everything, and a screen for every passenger to consume entertainment until their eyes bleed. Headroom, legroom, elbow and shoulder room, acceleration, top speed, trunk space, number of seats, even wheel size have all notably increased. In 1987, the US average light-duty vehicle weighed 3220 lbs, put out 118 hp, and had a 0-60 time of 13.1 sec. Today, these figures are 4108 lbs (+27.5%), 225 hp (+90.7%), and 9.5 sec (-27.5%). Why? Because more, bigger, "better", and faster are all easy things to sell, and as GM and Chrysler have seen all too clearly of late, you can't make money if you can't sell cars.


But all of that comes at a price, namely efficiency. For all of the automotive advancement over the past couple of decades, we've actually lost ground on mileage. In 1987 the US vehicle fleet averaged 22.0 mpg, the high-water mark for modern vehicles. In 2009 we were at 21.1 mpg, a decline of 4.1% from 22 years ago, though to be fair, an increase of 5% from 11 years back. 


So what can we do? Adding lightness does something miraculous; any given car gets both faster and more efficient. Handling improves, acceleration improves, braking improves, mileage improves, it's a great thing. Except that, for a given car, adding lightness typically adds cost. This is because steel is cheap, and replacing it with Aluminum or Carbon Fiber (even if it's a lesser total mass) is usually not cost effective in the short run. But if you can lighten up the body, then you can get similar performance from a smaller engine and smaller brakes. That leads to even better efficiency, and that can mean overall lifecycle costs (fuel, maintenance, replacement parts) that more than make up for the initial increase in purchase price. This is especially so in periods of high fuel costs, such as we're experiencing now.


But step back even further for a moment, and consider the Honda Super Cub. It is the best selling powered vehicle of all time, with over 60 million of them produced in the last 50 years. the Super Cub's 49cc engine puts out slightly over 4 hp, but can propel a single rider up to 50 mph. For a motorized vehicle it is remarkably reliable, easy to maintain, and simple to repair when necessary. It achieves nearly 300 mpg in normal use, with only basic technology upgrades from it's initial design. And it remains a remarkable design, as it provides the basics of safe and reliable transportation and not a thing more. Simple, light, cheap, economical, reliable. When we make purchases according to that we need vs. what we might like to have, we can make some pretty smart choices. 

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Photo Friday (on Sunday)

My first take at cross country skiing, in the south suburbs of Chicago. It was a high of 10 degrees F that day, and my hands knew it...


Thursday, January 14, 2010

Night Flying

Black. You forget how dark the world can be after living in the city for awhile. There's a streetlight that lives just out front of our apartment, and it's always a bit disarming on the nights that it goes out. But even then it's not truly dark; the city's glow radiates, streaming from inside buildings, carried forward by cars, reflecting back down from the undersides of clouds. When we have power we light up the place, and night becomes, quite literally, a pale imitation of it's true nature.

I love flying into Chicago on a clear night. At 5-10,000 feet, coming in from any direction, it becomes obvious from miles away that it's the work of man. Flat as a billiard table, stretching out for miles, and patterned in a woven grid of light that frays at the North, South, and West edges, but falls off an cliff to the East, over the lake. Especially when coming in from the Western states, this island of light rises in contrast to the land, and land, and more land that's been unceasingly under wing for hours at a stretch. Oriented forcefully N-S, E-W, it opens up a fractal world of ever increasing detail as the plane approaches and descends. I always want the window seat, unless I'm flying with someone who's never seen it before...

It gets even better the smaller you go. These days I do my personal flying in a tiny tin can out of a tiny airport out in the country of Southern Wisconsin. Not too long ago I was scheduled for my first night cross-country, and planned for a round trip to Madison. As this was at the height of summer I didn't depart for the airport until 7:30pm or so, as it was going to be awhile before the sun was finally set. It was perfect. Leaving the city that late, rush hour traffic was over and done with, and the drive was calm with an easy pace and few distractions. I was heading west by the time the sun fell to the horizon, and with a bit of dissipating cloud cover the show was spectacular. I pulled into the airport's parking lot just in time to catch the last of it, and stood there for awhile with a goofy smile on my face, relishing the moment.

Going over my flight plan with my instructor, I realized that I'd fouled up my headings with incorrect use of the plotter, and set about recalculating them with the whiz wheel. By the time I got outside to preflight the plane the sky had darkened, the clouds were gone, and the stars were shining as brightly as I'd ever seen them. That goofy smile was back in force. Taxi, run-up, takeoff, and climb, and we were on our way to Madison. Major navigation waypoints were found by the shine of moonlit lakes from 4,500 feet MSL. The air was so clear I could make out the destination runway from nearly 30 miles out. The runway was equipped with VASI so I had glideslope assistance, and it was wider than the length of most of the runways I'd been landing on. Traffic was non-existant, and we had the sky and the airport to ourselves. The radio felt like Art Bell at 2am. It wasn't Iowa, but it was close.

On the way back in a 3,500 ft cruise, there was a pinkish haze visible to the Southeast, far off in the distance. Visibility was over 100 miles as the haze was from the lights of Chicago, literally lighting up the sky above.

Night flying; it is so choice. If you have the means...

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

More Electric

In aviation circles, the term "More Electric" points to redesigning aircraft systems to run off electric power, as opposed to hydraulic or pneumatic. The idea is that wires and electric motors can be lighter, more efficient, and more reliable than the piping, valves, and various other moving parts associated with fluid power systems. And since weight and downtime are two very large enemies of aircraft designers and operators, we're starting to see a trend in the more electric direction.

For example, the Airbus A380 was the first commercial aircraft to utilize pure electric actuation to deploy engine thrust reversers and to hold open engine cowlings for servicing. The Boeing 787 goes a few steps further in doing away with bleed air systems from its engines. In its place, large starter-generators provide the electrical power for de-icing, cabin pressurization, and climate control. In addition, wheel braking is a pure electric application in the 787. And both these aircraft utilize electrohydrostatic actuation, where electrical power is used to create localized hydraulic pressure in what is essentially a hybrid of the two methods.

With the 2010 North American International Auto Show kicking off this week in Detroit, it's easy to see that the world's automobile manufacturers are moving in a more electric direction as well. In the realm of the car there are many good reasons for this shift, and also the potential to take the movement even further than in aviation.

For decades the simplest (cheapest) means of powering systems and accessories in an internal combustion-powered car was to bolt on a unit to the engine and spin its shaft with a belt connected to the crankshaft. Power steering, braking, air-conditioning, engine cooling, alternators, and superchargers were all "tacked-on" in this fashion, and in the century of cheap gas this worked just fine. Energy was converted into shaft power from a chemical source (gasoline), then converted again into electrical or hydraulic power, and then finally dissipated through work. It was easy to understand and repair, and it got the job done.

That said, much of the gasoline's chemical energy was wasted in this process. In essence, each of these individual systems was designed for peak power demands, and hence oversized for the majority of daily driving conditions. Having a shaft, pulley, and belt for each component added weight and moving parts and increased the overall number of conversion stages, which in turn increased overall losses. And having to idle or dump excess energy when demand slacked introduced another source of inefficiency.

Moving in a more electric direction mitigates a number of these issues by replacing fluid and shaft power with larger alternators or starter/generators. With increased electrical generating capacity, more systems can be run using electrical power. As shaft-to-electric power conversion is extremely efficient, there are fewer losses at the conversion stage. Since all systems are now running off the same electric "currency", load management is made easier, and the sizing of the generating device can be optimized for a smaller power requirement. And since electric motors do not have to spin while  idling, parasitic power requirements are essentially eliminated.

Additionally, more electric architecture provides the capability for cars to convert kinetic energy into electrical energy with only a few tweaks. We've already added a larger generating device to the engine, so if we can couple that to the driveshaft in some fashion we can get a regenerative braking system almost for free. It would require a slightly larger battery to collect the energy, but that's a pretty easy weight-vs.-efficiency trade to complete. And hey, generators are essentially motors run in reverse, so with a larger one attached to the engine and connected to a bigger battery, idle start-stop is only a short step away.

This is the basic idea behind the GM "mild" hybrid system, and while gains achieved weren't dramatic, they were notable and at minimum additional cost. Honda's Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) hybrid system operates on the same basic principles, but with an electric motor large enough to provide motive torque. IMA was also developed as an optimized system, with engine, motor/generator, and battery sizing all interrelated to create the most efficient combinations possible. Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive decouples the concept further, adding a complex transmission to connect engine, motor/generator, and drive wheels, allowing driving and driven components to be optimized in real time to maximize overall efficiency.

As cars don't have to fight gravity nearly as much as aircraft, the lower energy density of batteries and hydrogen vs. hydrocarbon fuels isn't a limiting factor in choosing a powerplant. Many auto manufacturers are looking to a future where primary propulsion is provided by one or more electric motors. Advantages in noise (no combustion = quiet), maintenance (bearings are the only contacting moving part), performance (maximum torque available at 0 RPM, and linear torque curve with speed), simplicity (higher RPM range can eliminate the need for multi-gear transmissions), weight (higher power densities), size (higher power densities), emissions (there aren't any), and point efficiency (electric motors are upwards of 95% efficient) are compelling. Electric motors don't care where their voltage came from, so primary generation can come from solar, wind, geothermal, hydro, nuclear, coal, gas, oil, treadmill, whatever. Local energy storage is the big question that still remains, and I'll save that for another discussion.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Information Asymmetry: Government, Traffic Enforcement



Enforcement of the law is a funny thing; too little, and anarchy reigns, too much, and you're in a police state. I'd posit that neither of these extremes are desirable, and that a nice happy middle ground is a good place to be. Such a middle ground requires a balance of power though, and in the US that balance is perceptibly shifting in favor of the state.

Three reasons come to mind that are allowing this shift to take place and take hold. First, advances in information technology enable the collection and processing of data in ways that are orders of magnitude more efficient than even just a decade ago. Second, the development of a fear-based security apparatus in the wake of multiple terrorist attacks in 2001 has lessened the traditional emphasis on citizen's civil rights. And finally, the successful anti-tax campaign of a host of political demagogues has brought about systemic dysfunction in the way we finance government operations. Add in the delightful bonus of a crippling financial crisis, and you get a political environment tailor-made to strip power from the citizenry.

One of the more prevalent but perhaps less obvious power shifts has been occurring in the world of traffic and parking enforcement. Until recently these functions were performed by paid, often sworn officers of the city and state. Their numbers were constrained by budgets, and their enforcement efficiency (simplistically, # of tickets per work hour) was largely constrained by limits of human ability. Also notable is that the issuing authority was a human being, with inherent (though variable) capacities for judgement and reason. Under this system there were multiple levels of appeal for an infraction, starting with the issuing officer, and moving on into the courts. The issuing officer was also able to take other factors into consideration, such as: was a good faith effort made to obey the law? were there extenuating circumstances that led to the violation? did the infraction fall into a modest "grace period"? And in many cases the officer had the ability to proffer official warnings that were intended to influence behavior without requiring penalty payment.

The application of advances in digital imagery, networking, and data processing are upending the traditional détente between motorists and government when it comes to traffic enforcement. In areas of speeding, parking, red-light running, licensing, and registration, automation has been brought to bear. In many communities this was done explicitly as a means to generate additional revenue for the government to perform operations. Here in Chicago, the Department of Revenue patrols city streets with camera vans in search of scofflaws parked in their own neighborhoods. Thanks to their diligence I have received tickets for a "missing" city sticker (obscured by snow on my windshield), no front plate mounted (it fell off after being backed into, and as it was too cold and rainy for it's sick owner to reinstall promptly, I had placed it visibly in the front windshield), and no front plate mounted, again, three days later (I was still sick). If I had left the car unattended for a week without reattaching the plate, I probably would have received my third ticket and perhaps a boot, to boot...

In addition, Chicago has plenty of company in the deployment of red-light cameras throughout it's lands. Roll-outs of these devices are often couched in terms of public safety, but there is significantly conflicting evidence regarding before-and-after accident rates. Instead, these devices are often installed by privately owned firms that receive a cut of revenue generated by their cameras. Initial review of potential violations is performed by the same private firm, and those instances found most likely to generate revenue are forwarded on to a government official to authorize issuance of a ticket.

Concerning privacy, the city of Chicago continues to claim "Red-light cameras only capture motorists who have broken the law" . This is demonstrably false, as the video segments provided to offenders show several seconds of intersection traffic while the light is yellow. As for slippery slopes, members of Chicago's City Council have also considered using the cameras to enforce mandatory auto insurance requirements as another revenue-generating privacy invasion. And in California, Gov. Schwarzenegger is proposing the use of speed sensors in conjunction with cameras already in existence to help plug massive holes in the state's budget.

These systems have their place, but the motivating factor for law enforcement should not be revenue generation, and that's where these run off the rails. Law enforcement should have the public safety as their primary goal, and government should primarily operate within the budgetary constraints provided by taxation. Anything else is a distortion that needs to be addressed.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Photo Friday (+1)



I have issues with motivating myself to get out and about with my camera. So I'm shamelessly using this blogging experiment to push myself in this regard. Every Friday will have a post of at least one, but perhaps more, photos that I've taken in the past week. Consider it like Friday catblogging, but usually without the cats. 


This week I inadvertently did something of a theme, which comes out to be winter transportation in Chicago. We had a compelling snowfall over the past several days, and I went out to document some of the effects of that on getting around in this city. Hope you enjoy.















Thursday, January 7, 2010

Design: Garlic

This one is admittedly a bit odd. I'm ok in the kitchen, but I'm certainly not a brilliant chef, nor even an aspiring one. And while I like garlic as much as the next person, perhaps even a bit more, I'm not crazed on the topic. So please keep these facts in mind while reading the following.

A few years back my wife signed us up for a "knife skills" class at the culinary school and store in our neighborhood. I had heard good things about the class, have always been interested in knives, and thought it might be a fun way to spend an evening picking up some useful knowledge. And it was all those things. At the end of class the instructor noted that, for students that evening, they were offering something like 15% off all merchandise.

So we meandered about the store for a bit and I found a neat looking gadget; the Rösle garlic press. I picked it up and played with the mechanism, and then noticed the $45 price tag and laughed. But one of the assistants for the class spotted the press in my hands and came up to me with her eyes wide and lit up. "This is probably my favorite thing in this store, and it works unbelievably well. Let me show you!" , and she proceeded to skip across the store to find a garlic clove to mash. The demo was impressive, but I was never going to spend ~$50 for something so trivial as a garlic press. And thus we walked home with our bags full of sliced, chopped, and minced vegetables, happy and hungry.

Here's the thing, though. Every garlic press I had used up to this point had been an exercise in frustration. They all required that you peel the clove first, they were all fussy about positioning the clove so it didn't squirm out, they all felt flexy and flimsy, and they all were amazingly difficult to clean thoroughly. I'd often simply mince the garlic rather than use the press, as it saved me considerable labor and sanity when the entire process was taken into account (especially with my new mincing skills... umm... yeah). So for every dish that we made with garlic, I'd think about that $50 press and briefly wonder what it might be like to own and use.

I must have looked particularly wistful, for my wife graced me with the Rösle press for my birthday that year. I felt suddenly adult, for now I was not only receiving kitchen utensils for gifts, but rather pricey ones at that... But it was a great gift, as it is a wonderfully designed object. The first thing that strikes me is it's heft; this press is solid, and does not flex under use. The materials are high quality stainless steel, and the unit looks as good today after three years of use as it did when I pulled it out of the bag. The mechanics are smooth and well balanced. I liken the feel of the swing to that of a Butterfly Knife (not that I own one, as they're ofttimes illegal), something that invites playing with it as if it were a pair of nun-chucks. The action is reasonably light, as the linkage provides enough mechanical advantage to crush the clove without major effort. And cleanup, while not perfect, is significantly easier, as the grate swings out of the "pressing chamber" so you can easily pick away the big parts and rinse away the rest.

It's not perfect, as the hold-close detents have worn a bit, and sometimes a bit of the garlic squeezes out of the chamber and above the press plate. But pressing garlic for meals is actually a bit of fun now, which feels as odd to write as it does to anticipate in reality. I credit this fully to the design of this garlic press, as I delight in knowing someone (or ones) took the time and effort to deeply understand something as mundane and annoying as the practice of cooking with garlic, and chose to create and market a solution that didn't half-ass anything. Kudos to them.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Meigs

One of the more fantastical memories from my childhood was eating a sack lunch along Chicago's lakefront while watching planes takeoff and land from Meigs Field. It must have been a field trip to the Arie Crown Theater inside McCormick Place, for I can't think why I would have had the perspective otherwise. But it was magical, with boats in the harbor, the lake stretching as far as the eye could see, and several small planes buzzing about nearly overhead, with a view of the country's best skyline presumably filling their windshields.

That experience stuck with me, informed my love of aviation, and strongly influenced my drive to become a pilot and an aerospace engineer. An early life goal of mine was to perform a landing at Meigs, and then presumably a takeoff as well. At various points over the years it seemed like this would become impossible, and then another last minute negotiation would save the little airport for a few years longer, and it started to look like it could happen. My earnings potential was finally catching up with my dreams, and I started my flight instruction in the months prior to 9/11/01. Before finishing my license I moved to Chicago and was unemployed for a spell, and held off on lessons during that time. I did head out to the airport during that time to look for work, and it was a thrill to imagine flying from there someday soon. But my medical had lapsed during that period, and before I had a chance to renew it Meigs was destroyed.

Several factors led to the demise of Meigs, but chief amongst them were corruption and hubris. During his mayoral tenure, Richard M. Daley had threatened closure of Meigs several times, and for a brief period in 1996 and 1997 he was successful in his efforts. Negotiations with Gov. Edgar and attempts by the IL state legislature to takeover Meigs served to extend the airport's life into the new Millennium. This cycle repeated itself in 2001, when Gov. Ryan and Mayor Daley agreed to save Meigs as a side deal related to O'Hare expansion.

In 2003 Ryan was out as Governor amidst numerous convictions of former aides and associates in the "Licenses for Bribes" scandal. His former chief of staff was convicted of racketeering and fraud in March of 2003, and it was widely believed at the time that Ryan's due was coming soon. Conversely, Mayor Daley was reelected to his fifth term in February of '03, with over 70% of the vote. With no one to challenge him, Daley sent out a convoy of heavy equipment in the wee morning hours of Monday March 31st, and summarily destroyed an active airport in direct contravention of Federal Regulations. This was done under cover of darkness, after the last news broadcasts of the night, and with full intent to circumvent any semblance of democratic policy apparatus.

Daley said the morning after, "To do this any other way would have been needlessly contentious", and couched his actions as necessary in the face of potential terrorist attacks launched from or apparently headed to Meigs. This must have been lower on his list of priorities when he agreed on 12/5/01 to keep Meigs open until at least 2006, less than 3 months after the Al Qaeda attacks on the east coast.

One man had the chutzpah and the power to destroy what was to many the "coolest little airport on the planet", basically on a personal whim. It made me sick then, and it still makes me angry now.

Free, Mass Transit

How much of the cost of transit can be seen as a public good? Additionally, how much would you be willing to pay for limitless transit access?

In this blog, Philip Greenspun floats the idea of a complete subsidy for users of mass transit. Reduced road wear and congestion, reduced auto emissions, increased mobility, increased transit utilization, the lists of positives are many. But what of the costs?

I'm a long-time resident of Chicago, and along with the political scandals of recent repute, our fair city and state have a hard time running our public transportation systems without politicization. Fare increases have come with increasing regularity, and state funding comes with increasing numbers of strings attached. Capital projects are hard to come by for the Chicago Transit Authority, even when the changing geography of the city screams out for better connections (Circle Line). This only adds to the malaise of the citizens, and that leaves these significant upgrades without a core constituency.

That was a whole paragraph without an answer to the costs. So here's a wag:

In 2008, the CTA ran up annual operating expenses of nearly $1.2 Billion (or $1.6 Billion when asset depreciation was factored in). The CTA generated just over $500 Million in operating revenue for the same period, Leaving a hole of close to $750 Million that city, state and regional governments had to fill. With 2.1 million Chicago residents above the age of 18, the average annual fare collected per capita was about $230. Currently, a 30-day CTA pass is $86. A one-way cash fare is $2.25, and there are various discounts for special populations. Adult residents over the age of 65 ride for free, as do active duty and disabled military personnel.

I'd guess there's a significantly smaller group that pays significantly higher than this average (12 months*$86/month = $1032, after all), and that there's a decently sized group that does not use CTA at all. I can't find any numbers that attempt to break this down, though with electronic fare cards there should be some means of getting an estimate of this info.

At a price of "free", I assume ridership would rise significantly both in terms of number of trips overall, as well as individuals using the transit system. Operating expenses would increase if service grew to meet the demand, but they could remain flat if an increase in crowding. And there could be a CapEx reduction and some labor decreases as well when you remove the need for fare collection.

But is there a price that could increase ridership and keep revenue where it is? CTA figures show that $220 Million of fare revenue comes from passes. Since they don't really give a break across the non-discount passes, That comes out to an equivalent of 213,000 year-long full price pass riders at a cost of $1032/year. Let's say you bring down the cost of the monthly pass to $40/month, or $360/year. You'd maintain the 213,000 pass passengers for a total of $77-102 Million. You'd probably bring over a decent number of individual fare purchasers into the pass system, since $40 / month is the equivalent of ~18 full fare rides (that's less than two weeks' worth of commuting). I wouldn't be surprised if pass revenue stayed flat-ish, though at the expense of farebox money.

How to make up the rest? If you kept single use fares significantly higher than the price per ride of the pass, it would strongly encourage even marginal riders to go for the pass. Offering further discounts only based on means-testing would be another way to recoup lost revenue. Pulling in cash at the beginning of a user's "year" would allow for modest investment returns on that money. And here's one from left-field: Pull some cash from the McPier tourist taxes and airport fees, and give those tourists a "free" pass on all the city's transit.

None of this touches on the externalities of transit, and whether those can be used as justification for greater subsidies from general funds. I'll try to come back to that at a later date.

Monday, January 4, 2010

787, and Turning a Corner

A little more than a decade ago I was sweating out my final semester in Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering, and the capstone class was Senior Design - Aircraft. We were placed in teams and tasked with fleshing out a design concept for a Super Short TakeOff and Landing cargo aircraft. My responsibilities were Aircraft Performance and Environmental Impact, though my effective responsibility was only Performance. There simply was no design manual for Environmental Impact; noise was a tangential factor that deserved just a bit of consideration, and Specific Fuel Consumption played into range and weight, but little more. The very thin section in our final design report admitted we could find no guide and little information on Environmental issues as related to aviation, and we were let off the hook.

December of 2002 marked a significant shift away from this attitude in the aviation world. In that month, Boeing was forced to admit defeat and abandon their sexy Sonic Cruiser concept due to lack of interest. As this followed shelving of the 747 stretch program a year prior, many industry watchers openly wondered if Boeing Commercial had lost its mojo. Those concerns were amplified when the 7E7 was announced, with the "dowdy" goal of using Sonic Cruiser developments to wring out ~20% efficiency gains from a basic tube and wing planform. Boeing was in effect claiming that the century of aviation focused on higher, bigger, and faster heroics was now giving way to those sniveling environmental concerns. Conventional wisdom said that it could be the company's last hand in the poker game of airliner manufacturing, and that it had unceremoniously checked.

Sixteen months of gut-check played out between the 7E7's announcement it's official program launch, when ANA first signed up for 50 of the aircraft in April of 2004. And it was almost another year before the narrative started to change and Boeing started to rack up more orders. Lingering overcapacity post 9/11 and an extreme rise in fuel prices in the wake of Hurricane Katrina made airlines vulnerable, and a 20% efficiency gain became a compelling sales point. By April of 2007, the renamed 787 Dreamliner had become the fastest selling commercial airliner ever, with 544 firm orders on the books. Even with numerous painful delays to the program, Boeing now holds 840 orders for the plane, when it only flew for the first time a couple of weeks ago.

In aviation, efficiency has gone from something of a tangential concern to the primary selling point for new aircraft in less than 10 years. Airbus's A350 had to undergo three major design iterations before a marketable product emerged, now largely embracing the 787 design direction of composite primary structures, highly efficient turbines, and more electric systems. Engine technology seems to be the pacing item for Boeing and Airbus narrowbody redesigns, with open rotor and Geared TurboFan engines competing with conventional high-bypass turbofans for the next step in efficiency. Bombardier is trying to move upmarket with the C-Series narrowbody design, using composites and the GTF engine as differentiators from Embraer and the smaller Boeing and Airbus planes.

It's typical for aviation to be in the vanguard of transportation development. And with the development of energy (and hence cost) efficient aircraft heating up over the past several years, aviation will continue to set the direction of transportation development for some time to come.