Monthly Archives: November 2017

City-wide trial shows how road use charges can reduce traffic jams

The Conversation

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A trial of 1,400 drivers across Melbourne suggests time-of-use charges can be effective in easing traffic congestion. AMPG/Shutterstock

Leslie A. Martin, University of Melbourne and Sam Thornton, University of Melbourne

Road congestion in large Australian cities is estimated to cost more than A$16 billion a year. Economists have long argued the best way to improve traffic flow is to charge drivers for their contribution to road congestion. We have now analysed data collected from 1,400 drivers across Melbourne to see whether road user charging can change their behaviour in ways that ease congestion. And the answer is yes.

Because the obstacle to adopting this approach has been concern about its fairness, we also looked at driver incomes. Would congestion-based charges price the poor off the road for the benefit of those who can pay? We calculated how different systems of road use charges affected households on different incomes, and how driving patterns changed under different prices.

The evidence does not support other common policy responses to traffic congestion. Building new roads does little to relieve congestion. Placing tolls on roads can push traffic onto others.


Further reading: Do more roads really mean less congestion for commuters?


However, even small reductions in congestion can produce large benefits. On congested roads, reducing traffic by 5% can increase traffic speeds by up to 50%.

The question is: what would the optimal charges be? Drivers often plan their travel ahead of time, so Uber-like surge pricing is not necessarily the best way to go. Could simpler fixed charges, based perhaps on time of day or location, be effective?

In 2015-2016, Transurban Group implemented the Melbourne Road Usage Study (MRUS) to answer these questions. More than 1,400 drivers across greater Melbourne installed GPS devices in their vehicles for eight to ten months. After a period to establish baseline use, a randomly selected subset faced a series of road use charges via a system of virtual accounts. Every month participants accumulated real money from reduced charges as a result of their decisions about driving.

A congestion-charging zone in central London. Bikeworldtravel/Shutterstock

Well-targeted charges ease congestion

The Melbourne Road Usage Study tested three simple charges:

  • a flat distance-based charge of 10 cents per kilometre
  • a time-of-day charge of 15 cents per kilometre at peak times and 8 cents at other times
  • a distance-plus-cordon charge where drivers were charged 8 cents per kilometre at all times plus A$8 if they entered the inner city.

Our working paper, Can Road Charges Alleviate Congestion?, evaluates the raw data.

Charges that vary by time of day were most effective at reducing driving at congested times. Drivers subjected to a higher cost of driving in the weekday peak hours of 7am to 9am and 3pm to 6pm reduced travel by 10% during these periods.

While a simple 10 cent charge on distance travelled did reduce driving, this was mainly outside the congested inner city and at off-peak times – mostly in the middle of the day and on weekday evenings. Most freeway congestion occurs around morning and late afternoon commutes.

London and Singapore have charges to enter the congested city centre. Further research is needed to assess the effects on inner-city traffic in Australian cities.

The evidence points towards most drivers who enter the CBD being willing to pay higher weekday charges. But few drivers entered the cordon zone during the study. Less than 5% of the drivers made over half of the trips into the area.

Access to reliable public transport matters

Public transit has a key role in getting cars off the road. Our data showed households located far from the CBD and from public transport drive more. Living 500 metres closer to a tram or train station has the same effect on kilometres driven each day as living 5km closer to the CBD.

Households within a 10-minute walk from public transport drive least. The largest reductions in driving from time-of-day and cordon charges come from households living 10 to 20 minutes’ walk away.

Road use charges could be fairer

Congestion-based charges can be a more progressive way to fund roads than the existing system of registration fees and fuel taxes.

The fuel excise makes up almost half of the average annual road bill in Australia. It’s essentially a distance-based fee, but more fuel-efficient vehicles pay less per kilometre travelled. Hybrid vehicle drivers, for example, contribute much less to fuel tax revenue.

Yet, although hybrids contribute less to air pollution, they increase congestion just as much as their petrol-guzzling counterparts. And congestion is a much greater shared economic cost than vehicle air pollution.

Annual vehicle registration fees make up most of the remaining road bill. These provide no incentive to reduce congestion.

Fuel taxes and registration fees put a disproportionate burden on low-income households in the outer suburbs. Our research shows these households would be better off if roads were funded more by congestion charges.

Field experiments help get the settings right

So what is the optimal congestion charge? Economic theory (Pigou 1920) tells us to price at the cost that each extra user imposes on the system.

With road use, though, the calculation is difficult. To fix rates in advance, we would need to know exactly how much longer everyone’s trip is when each extra driver joins each system. And we’d need to cost that slowdown for each individual on the road at that time (i.e. value their time and, potentially, the cost to them of being late). New research has been using clever experimental designs to identify these values.

That said, maybe it is not too important to get the price just right. For electricity, we are starting to see that households respond to there being a price, not its specific level.

Before widespread road use charges are implemented, we would like to see more field experiments like the MRUS to find answers to other questions. Would it be better to combine a time-of-day charge with targeted locations? How effective would it be to charge more for using highly congested arterial roads at peak times? Would this simply push congestion onto nearby local roads? How large a gap between peak and off-peak prices is needed to produce a strong response?

Another interesting option is the i10 model outside Los Angeles. Two lanes are for traffic willing to pay more to get to their destination faster.

Dynamic pricing ensures traffic in these lanes flows freely – if too many use these lanes and traffic slows, the price increases. Drivers can decide every few kilometres if they want to pay more to stay in the express lanes. Those who must get somewhere on time are able to, and the fee revenue can be used to reduce road costs for others.

The Melbourne Road Usage Study (MRUS) shows field experiments can help us design better road use charges. By all appearances, households took it seriously and were positive about their involvement.

The ConversationThe MRUS provides evidence that well-designed road use charges could help reduce congestion by encouraging people to drive at different times, take other routes or use other transport. This could lead to better use of existing infrastructure, thereby reducing costs, while generating revenue for infrastructure investments. Under such a system, drivers who contribute little to congestion could see substantial gains.

Leslie A. Martin, Lecturer (Assistant Professor) in Economics, University of Melbourne and Sam Thornton, Master of Economics candidate, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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The Cultural Revolution hits a Canadian university: grad student teacher bullied for promoting free discussion in her class

Why Evolution Is True

Wilfred Laurier University is a public university in Waterloo, Ontario, and has just become the target of international opprobrium after its persecution of a graduate teaching assistant became public this week. The teaching assistant, 22 year old Lindsay Shepherd, is now one of my heroes for standing up for the principles of free speech and pushing back against the bullying of her professors and the University who want Suppressed Speech.  Here she is:

Lindsay Shepherd. Photo by David Bebee

What happened? Well, as reported by several sources, including the Globe and Mail, Shepherd, a graduate student pursuing a master’s degree in cultural analysis and social theory, was teaching a tutorial on language to first year students when the subject of personal pronouns arose. As you may have heard, this year Canada passed a federal law that added “gender identity and gender expression” to the Canadian Human Rights Act (“Bill…

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Does the Mona Lisa smile?

Footnotes to Plato

I spent the weekend in Ghent, Belgium, where I participated to an event called Night of the Freethinker. After giving my usual talk on Stoicism as secular philosophy (slides here), I took part in a debate on post-truth and the nature of science, together with my friend Maarten Boudry (co-editor of our forthcoming Science Unlimited? The Challenges of Scientism) and local author Coen Simon, the whole thing ably moderated by Eveline Groot. At some point, Eveline put up a slide of the Mona Lisa, Leonardo da Vinci’s famous masterpiece, challenging the panel to comment on recent “scientific findings” that allegedly settle, once and for all, the question of whether the Mona Lisa — a portrait of Lisa Gherardini — is actually smiling.

I always thought the question to be rather odd, as it is clear that Mona Lisa is, in fact, smiling, though in a (purposefully, as…

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Most young Australians can’t identify fake news online

The Conversation

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Media education opportunities should be more frequently available in schools to ensure young Australians meaningfully engage with news media. Shutterstock

Tanya Notley, Western Sydney University and Michael Dezuanni, Queensland University of Technology

In September 2017, we conducted Australia’s first nationally representative survey focused on young Australians’ news engagement practices.

Our survey of 1,000 young Australians aged eight to 16 indicated that while roughly one third felt they could distinguish fake news from real news, one third felt they could not make this distinction. The other third were uncertain about their ability.

In part, we were motivated by the gravity of recent academic and public claims about the impact of the spread of “fake news” via social media – although we are well aware of arguments about the credibility and accuracy of the term “fake news”. In our study, we classified fake news as news that is deliberately misleading.

What we found

Age plays a role here. As children get older, they feel more confident about telling fake news from real news. 42% of Australian teens aged 13-16 reported being able to tell fake news from real news, compared with 27% of children aged 8-12.


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We found young Australians are not inclined to verify the accuracy of news they encounter online. Only 10% said they often tried to work out whether a story presented on the internet is true. A significant number indicated they sometimes tried to verify the truthfulness of news (36%). More than half indicated they either hardly ever tried (30%) or never tried to do this (24%).


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We also asked young Australians how much attention they pay to thinking about the origin of news stories, particularly those they access online. More than half indicated they paid at least some attention or a lot of attention to the source of news stories (54%). However, 32% said they paid very little attention and 14% said they paid no attention at all.

To us, the circulation of fake news on social media is troubling, given what we know about how social media platforms create news filter bubbles that reinforce existing worldviews and interests.

Even more concerning, though, is the way many social media platforms allow people with vested interests to push content into feeds after paying to target people based on their age, location or gender, as well as their status changes, search histories and the content they have liked or shared.

There is often no transparency about why people are seeing particular content on their social media feeds or who is financing this content. Furthermore, much online content is made by algorithms and “bots” (automated accounts, rather than real people) that respond to trends in posts and searches in order to deliver more personalised and targeted content and advertising.

Where are young Australians getting their news?

Given these concerns, we used our survey to ask just how much news young Australians get through social media.

With all the hype around young people’s mobile and internet use, it might come as a surprise that social media did not emerge as their top news source and nor is it their most preferred.

80% of young Australians said they had consumed news from at least one source in the day before the survey was conducted. Their most frequent source was family members (42%), followed by television (39%), teachers (23%), friends (22%), social media (22%), and radio (17%). Print newspapers trailed a distant last (7%).

However, this is not to diminish the significance of young people’s use of social media to consume news. Two-thirds of teens said they often or sometimes accessed news on social media (66%) and more than one third of children stated they did so (33%).

For teens, Facebook was by far the most popular social media site for getting news with over half (51%) using it for this purpose. For children, YouTube was by far the social media platform used most for news. 37% got news from this site.


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What should we be doing?

There is no doubt that legal and regulatory changes are needed to address the issue of fake news online.

However, education must also play a critical role. Media education opportunities should be more frequently available in schools to ensure young Australians meaningfully engage with news media.

Media Arts in the Australian Curriculum is one of the world’s only official systematic media literacy policies for children in preschool to year 10, but it is being under-used. Our survey suggests only one in five young Australians received lessons in the past year to help them critically analyse news, and only one third had made their own news stories at school.

The curriculum also needs to ensure young people understand the politics, biases and commercial imperatives embedded in technologies, platforms and digital media.

The ConversationOur survey shows that young people are consuming lots of news online. However, many are not critiquing this news or they don’t know how to. The implications of this are not necessarily self-evident or immediate, but they may be very wide reaching by influencing young people’s capacity to participate in society as well-informed citizens.

Tanya Notley, Senior Lecturer in Digital Media, Western Sydney University and Michael Dezuanni, Associate professor, Creative Industries Faculty, Queensland University of Technology

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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The Story of the Navajo Code Talkers

American Elephants

I don’t know how familiar Americans are with the story of their own Navajo Code Talkers who served in the Untied States Marine Corps in the Pacific theater in World War II, but it is a proud and fascinating story. Early in the war in the Pacific, it became clear that the Japanese had broken our military codes. We had used Native American speakers in World War I with some great success, but the Germans were not about to leave themselves vulnerable. They infiltrated reservations across the United States to learn the languages. The Navajo reservation in the Four Corners area of Nevada, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico is remote, beautiful, but not easily penetrated.  Here is their story.

These are two different treatments of the Code-Talker history. The first is longer, but all in one story. The second comes in three parts. When you have time you might want…

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It’s unrealistic to expect MPs to follow the view of the people who elected them every time

The Conversation

Gregory Melleuish, University of Wollongong

The same-sex marriage survey results showed up which members of parliament voted in a starkly opposite fashion to those in their electorates. The electorate of Blaxland had a strong “no” vote, while their MP Jason Clare voted yes, and in prominent “no” campaigner Tony Abbott’s seat of Warringah there was a strong “yes” vote.

Marcella Cheng for The Conversation, CC BY-ND

Some people may think it’s the duty of their MP to vote in the way they did. Of course, this could mean that as every state voted “yes” then the Senate as a whole should support the same-sex marriage legislation. But generally, this connection between popular sentiment and how a MP votes is usually made in terms of single member constituencies.

It’s based on a very old idea of the role of MPs as “delegates” or “agents” of their constituents and therefore liable to be issued instructions on how they should vote on any issue. This idea relates back to a time when parliament, especially in England, could be understood, as bringing together the interests of its various boroughs and counties.

This model of representation is difficult to sustain once a country is understood as constituting a national entity with a unified political culture. It’s also difficult to sustain once parliament begins to deal with a range of complex policy matters.

The idea of a newly elected member being issued with a list of instructions and then needing to go back to their constituents every time a new issue arises may sound very democratic, but it’s also quite impractical.

In the eighteenth century a new model of representation arose which is known as the trustee model. It was given its most famous expression by the English politician Edmund Burke, who argued that representatives were elected not just to represent their local constituency but also the nation as a whole. They were not agents but trustees. They could not be instructed by their constituents but instead would use their personal judgement and conscience as the basis of their decision on any particular policy matter.

The idea of the member as a trustee was very popular in colonial Australia, at least in theory, but it did not prevent colonial parliaments being full of what are termed “roads and bridges” members who worked hard to win benefits for their local areas. A lack of instructions does not mean that a member will cease to work for the material improvement of their constituencies.

Nevertheless, the delegate model of representation had strong support in Australia, particularly from radicals. David Syme, owner of The Age newspaper, was a big supporter. The early Labor Party equally was structured around the model such that Labor MPs were ultimately responsible to the party conference.

Vere Gordon Childe in How Labour Governs has chronicled how this system worked and, I believe, how it created all sorts of problems for the party. Childe demonstrated that those who seek to control MPs are also often those who are seeking to replace them.

The idea of the member as delegate is generally advocated because it’s seen as being an expression of true democracy. The problem is that it posits an idea that the average citizen takes a very active interest in politics and wants to have a say.

The opposite view is that most people have little interest in politics and having elected a member it’s the role of the member to “do politics”. This means that they also expect their member to intervene on their behalf when assistance is required.

In his wonderful 1970 movie The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer, the late and great Peter Cook provided a picture of how a combination of marketing techniques and a desire to make a country more “democratic” could lead to the opposite effect.

In the movie the citizens of Britain, bombarded with referenda on every trivial policy issue, are finally asked to turn all power over to Rimmer to which, in a state of exhaustion, they vote “yes”.

The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer showed how marketing techniques and a desire to make a country more ‘democratic’ could have the opposite effect. Jason Garrattley/flickr/cropped, CC BY-NC-ND

There is a very real danger in the ideal of the member as delegate, and in the notion that the member is there to do the bidding of their constituents. Imagine if every time an issue was to be determined every electorate was polled as to their views on the matter, as happens in Cook’s movie.

It would not last. In the same-sex marriage case it has been a novelty but the novelty would soon wear off.

Moreover, the major people to benefit from such a situation would be those political activists who believe their voices are not being heard and, following Childe, who wish to replace those who are currently MPs.

In reality, we have a mixed model of representation which does bind not members to the instructions of their constituents, but which also recognises that a local member should work hard on behalf of those whom they have been elected to represent.

The ConversationReality is always messy and escapes attempts to boil it down into models. Members represent both the nation and their local electorate and must find a way to balance the two.

Gregory Melleuish, Professor, School of Humanities and Social Inquiry, University of Wollongong

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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2017 Word for Word Non Fiction Festival Day #2

ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

I went to just two sessions at the Word for Word Non Fiction Festival today but both were so good, they on their own would have made the weekend worthwhile.

First up was Paul Daley in conversation with Nick Brodie about his new book The Vandemonian War.  You might think that so much as been written by terrific historians like Henry Reynolds, Lyndall Ryan and James Boyce, that there can’t be much more to know about the colonial conflict in Tasmania.  But you’d be wrong.

Australians who are otherwise obsessed with commemorating the First World War with national, state and town war memorials, are apt to ignore the wars that took place on our own land.  But Nick Brodie thinks that eventually the Australian War Memorial – whose refusal to acknowledge the resistance wars is the most egregious – will have to capitulate eventually because the evidence is…

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Does Cooking Matter? by Rebecca Huntley

ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

I picked up this little book at the festival bookshop and read it last night over an excruciating room service lasagne.  So yes, I can tell you, cooking does matter…

In her Introduction, Rebecca Huntley writes about Christmas, quoting the British guru of food and cooking Elizabeth David’s heartfelt plea for a simple meal instead of the fuss and bother of the turkey et al.  Her point is that even if you like doing it, first and foremost cooking is labour, and a chore, and that we need to understand that better.  She thinks we might be less wasteful (see my recent post about The Art of Frugal Hedonism) if we recognise that, (though I have my doubts).

Huntley talks about the need to have a sophisticated, healthy and enjoyable relationship with food and that if it seems to difficult then people disengage. We who like cooking shows and experimenting are a passionate…

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History Buffs: Lawrence of Arabia

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Readers’ wildlife photos

Why Evolution Is True

I suspect this will be the last RWP post until Tuesday of next week—unless somebody sends me photos from tomorrow till Monday (I leave my photo folder on my office computer). And today we have cranes photographed by reader Karen Bartelt, whose notes and IDs are indented:

In October my husband and I visited the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo, WI.  This could be dismissed as just a “crane zoo”, but the foundation does important work, not only bringing wild whooping cranes back from the brink of extinction (down to 22 when I was a kid to over 600 today) but also working to ensure wetland habitat preservation in Africa and Asia.  All 15 species of cranes are on site.  Here is a selection of some of the cranes.  In a separate submission, I’ll send photos of the wild cranes we saw later on in Wisconsin.

Grey-crowned cranes (Balearica…

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