Large sites and universally accessible blocks

Currently reading this paper by Brelsford, Martin, Hand and Bettencourt of the Santa Fe Institute (did I tell you I just got my first MOOC certificate from this institute last week?) on the topology of cities. I have only a rudimentary understanding of topology (thanks to an excellent session with Dr. V Vinay), but considering that I know Graph Theory fairly well, I’ve been able to follow the paper so far.

The paper talks about “universally accessible blocks” in cities, which is basically about blocks where each unit can be accessed directly by road without going through other units. Developed cities, the paper argues, has mostly universally accessible blocks, while non-universally accessible blocks are artefacts of non-developed countries and old cities.

The problem with non-univerally accessible blocks is that the “inner units” in such blocks (which are not directly accessible by road) are mostly deprived of public and emergency services and this affects the  quality of life in such blocks. The paper, for example, talks about mostly slums having such architecture, and that newly developed cities usually try to have universally accessible blocks.

When Bangalore was developed in a planned fashion starting in the 1950s (led by the “City Improvement Trust Board” which later morphed into the “Bangalore Development Authority”), a number of new areas were designed for large houses. Large sites were allotted, and regulations framed such that buildings on such sites be sparse (they were called “bungalow sites”). The part of Bangalore I live in, Jayanagar, for example, has a large concentration of such bungalow sites.

While in theory such sites make sense, the fact is that not too many people were enthused about sparse buildings on such sites. So they took advantage of loopholes in regulation (even best designed policies have loopholes) to build multiple buildings on the site. Later on, these sites got partitioned into smaller sites, with at least one building on each smaller site. As a result of partitioning, a large number of units thus created were not “accessible”.

Allotting big sites and getting people to build big houses on them in order to “lead development” into a new area might have been a great idea in theory, but the fact that most people could not afford to build such big houses and loopholes in regulation resulted in non-accessible units! Of course it results in lower infrastructure costs (since the road network is sparser than is necessary), but it comes at a price since not everyone has equal access to infrastructure.

As a wise man once said, #thatzwhy we need strong regulation.

Car-free days, traffic jams and social capital

While most news nowadays is fairly hilarious, one piece was more hilarious than the others. This was about traffic jams in Gurgaon yesterday, a day that had been declared as a “Car Free Day”.

You might wonder why there might be traffic jams on days that are supposedly “Car Free”. I don’t know the precise effect this can be classified under, but it’s somewhere in a linear combination of Prisoner’s Dilemma and Tragedy of the Commons and correlation, all led by a lack of social capital.

There are no rules that declare the day to be car free. It’s just a “request” by the local government (traffic police in this case). While there were some nominal efforts to improve public transport for the day, etc, there was nothing else that was different yesterday from other days. So why did it lead to a traffic jam?

If you know it’s a car free day and you have a car, you’ll assume that other people are going to leave their cars at home, and that you are going to have a free ride in free-flowing non-traffic if you take out your car. And so you take out your car. Unfortunately, the number of people who think such is enough to cause a traffic jam.

The problem stems with a lack of social capital in Indian cities (based on anecdotal experience (my own data point from 2008-09), I would posit it is lower in Gurgaon than in other Indian cities). As a consequence, when people are trying to make the “great optimisation”, they allocate a greater weight than necessary to their own interests, and consequently a lesser than necessary weight to others’ interests. And thus you end up with outcomes like yesterday’s. More generally, “requests” to people to give up a private benefit for others’ benefits can at best turn out to be counterproductive.

While designing policies, it’s important to be realistic and keep in mind ease of implementation. So if the reality is low social capital, any policy that requires voluntary giving up by people is only going to have a marginal impact.

Coming back to traffic, I’m increasingly convinced (I’ve held this conviction since 2006, and it has only grown stronger over time) that the only way to make people switch to public transport is to lead with supply – flood the streets with buses, which among other things actually increase the cost of private transport. Once there is sufficient density of buses, these buses can be given their own lanes which further pushes up the cost of driving. Then we can look at further measures such as prohibitive parking costs and congestion pricing.

We can have these notional “no car days” and “bus days” and “no honking days” but it is unlikely that any of them will have anything more than a token effect.

Getting BRT to work

Dedicated bus lanes are neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for BRT

After significant success in Ahmedabad and spectacular failure in Delhi, Pune is the latest city in India to embark on a “Bus Rapid Transport” (BRT) project. As the name suggests, the point of a BRT is to provide fast and convenient transport to people on buses that ply on existing roads, with some sections of some roads being reserved for buses.

However, in popular imagination, BRT has become synonymous with bus lanes (a lane of road reserved for buses), and the whole controversy in Delhi (which caused the project to be shelved) was about a lane of an arterial road being reserved for buses. In fact, however, a dedicated bus lane is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for implementation of BRT.

The attraction of BRT is that it comes with low infrastructure cost – unlike a train or monorail (or even a tram) line, there is not much investment required in terms of physical infrastructure. The challenge with BRT, however, is that its buses are liable to get stuck in traffic (just like every other vehicle) which might prevent it from living up to its middle name.

For this reason, certain changes are made to traffic patterns so that BRT indeed remains rapid. For example, traffic signals on arterial bus routes might be designed to give priority to the directions where buses travel. You might have bus stops in the middle of the road for people to get on to buses. And you might reserve lanes on roads for buses. Once again note that the last named is not a necessary condition for BRT.

What BRT should deliver is a dense and reliable network of buses. On arterial and other key roads, frequency of buses should be extremely high. Our current model of point-to-point and hub-and-spoke based bus routes need to be given up in favour of a more dense network, where it might be quicker for people to change multiple buses to get to their destination. This also warrants a change in the ticketing system, using a zone-based ticket than the current point-to-point ticket, and moving ticketing offline.


The fashion so far in India (with Ahmedabad being a possible exception) is to announce arterial roads as “BRT corridors” and start off the BRT services by reserving lanes on these roads for buses, without bothering about linkages and networks at either end. The problem with this is that the losers of the road space “pay” immediately, but the benefits of BRT are not immediately forthcoming.

A better method of implementation would be to make reservation of bus lanes the last step in BRT. The first should be to increase the density of buses and creation of networks. The problem with this is that it requires investment and the expanded (and densified) network might run far below capacity for a while. Yet, as the network expands (even without dedicated lanes), people will begin to see the benefits and convenience offered, and demand for BRT will increase.

Two things will happen – firstly, the expanded and densified network of buses will start crowding out (literally) private vehicles on the road. Secondly, people will see the relative benefits of taking these buses and these buses will start filling up. As these two effects take place, there will come a point when lanes can be reserved for buses without slowing down any of the rest of the traffic.

What we need, in other words, is “system thinking“, and to look at BRT as a solution to move people to their destination in a more efficient manner. Once policymakers recognise that bus lanes are only a means to this end, we can expect BRT to implemented in a proper fashion.

My tryst with Kannada media

So about a month or so back, I wrote up an essay on why the much-maligned TenderSURE project is a right step in the development of Bangalore, and why the Chief Minister’s comments on the issue were misguided and wrong.

Having written it, considering it worthy of a better forum than NED, I shared it with my Takshashila colleagues. They opined that is should get published in a Kannada newspaper, and Varun Shenoy duly translated the piece into Kannada. And then the story began.

We sent it to PrajaVani (which has published several other Op-Eds from other Takshashila people), but they summarily rejected this without giving reasons. We then sent it to UdayaVani, reaching it after passing some hoops, but then they raised some questions with the content, the answers to which had been made quite clear within the text.

I think Mint has spoilt me, in that I assume that it’s okay to write geeky stuff and have it accepted for publication. Rather, it is possible that they’ve recruited me so that they can further bolster their geek quotient. Last week, for example, I sent a piece on Fractional Brownian Motion, and it got published. A couple of years back I’d sent a formula with Tchebyshev’s inequality to be included in a piece on sampling, and they had published that too.

When translating my piece, Varun thought it was too geeky and technical, and he made an attempt to tone it down during his translation. And the translation wasn’t easy – for we had to find Kannada equivalents for some technical terms that I’d used. In some cases, Varun expertly found terms. In others, we simply toned it down.

Having toned down the piece and made an effort to make it “accessible”, UdayaVani’s response was a bit of a dampener for us – and it resulted in a severe bout of NED. And so we sat on the piece. And continued to put NED.

Finally, Varun got out of it and published it on the Takshashila blog (!!). The original piece I’d written is here:

A feature of Bangalore traffic, given the nature of the road network, is that bottlenecks are usually at the intersections, and not at the roads. As a consequence, irrespective of how much we widen the roads, the intersections will continue to constrain the flow of traffic in the city. In other words, making roads narrower will not have a material impact on the throughput of traffic in the city.

And Varun’s translation is here:

(Update: I tried to extract Varun’s piece here but it’s not rendering properly, so please click through and read on the Logos blog)

Read the whole thing, whichever piece you can understand. I think we are on to something here.

And on that note, it might make sense to do a more rigorous network-level analysis of Bangalore’s roads. Designing the graph is simple – each intersection (however small it might be) is a node, each “road segment” is an edge. The graph is both directed (to take care of one-ways) and weighted (to indicate width of roads).

We’ll need data on flows, though. If we can get comprehensive data of origin and destination of a large number of people, we should be able to impute flows in each segment based on that.

And then we can rigorously test the hypothesis (I admit that it’s still only a hypothesis) that bottlenecks on Bangalore’s roads are intersections and not roads.

The Box: A review

So over the weekend I started and finished reading “The Box: How the shipping container made the world smaller and the world economy bigger” by Mark Levinson. It’s a fascinating book, and one that I had been intending to read for a very long time. Somehow it always kept slipping my mind whenever I wondered what book to buy next, and I’d pushed buying it for a long time now.

Finally, a few days back, when “unknown twitter celebrityKrish Ashok asked his followers to send him reading recommendations, and when he published the list, and I saw this book on the list, and I saw that the book was available on Kindle for Rs. 175, I just bought it. This is the first book in a very long time that I’ve bought “straight” off the Kindle Store, not bothering with a sample.

It’s a fascinating book, as it takes us through the 50-odd years of history of the shipping box. And on the way, it gives us insights into the development of the world economy through the 50s and 60s, and factors that led to the logistic revolution ushered in by the box.

We think of post world war America as this capitalist haven, where markets were free, and you could get jailed for communist leanings. We tend to think about this time as one of innovation and freedom of business, leading to high economic growth.

This wasn’t the case, though. While the US was nominally capitalist and markets were supposedly free, this was a time of heavy regulations, and the presence of cartels. International shipping rates, for example, till the mid-1970s, were set by “conferences” (basically cartels), after which the cartels broke down. It was not possible for a carrier to quote an integrated source-to-destination rate, and rates had to be quoted by leg. Someone who wanted to start a new train route had to prove to the regulators that it would not harm existing players!

And then there were the unions. Levinson devotes an entire chapter to how the unions were managed. Basically containerisation meant greater mechanisation and a reduction in demand for labour. And this was obviously not acceptable to the dockworker unions, and led to protracted battles which needed to be resolved before containerisation could take off. The most interesting story came from the UK, where unions in most established ports (primarily London and Liverpool) blocked containerisation, and went on strike in the specially developed container port at Tilbury. Felixstowe, which had hitherto been too obscure a port to attract unions’ attention, now unencumbered by unions, jumped on to the container business and is now by far the UK’s biggest port.

Levinson also pays much attention to how the container shaped economies in general. Prior to containerisation, the cost of changing mode of transport was very high, since individual items needed to be unloaded from one means of transport and loaded to another. Industries were usually located based on access to port, and ports came up to service nearby industries. Containerisation changed all that. Now that it was easy to transport using a series of different means of transport, the location advantage of being close to port was lost. And this had massive effects on the economy of regions.

Massive effects on economies also happened due to the scale factor that containerisation brought in. Small ports didn’t make any sense any more, since the transaction cost of berthing was too high. And so small ports started dying, with business being soncolidated into a few larger ports. The game changed into a winner take all mechanism.

In the 1950s and 60s, before the coming of the container, shipping was a low-capex high-opex (operational expenditure) business. Most ships were old and cheap, but costs in terms of labour and other things was high. With the coming of the containership, the cost structure inverted, with the capital expenditure now being extremely high, but opex being quite low. This led to “revenue management”, and a drop in prices, and ultimately the breaking of the cartels.

The book is full of insights, and chapters are organised by subject rather than in chronological order. It gets a little repetitive at times, but is mostly crisp (I read it in a weekend), and the insights mentioned above are only a sample. And it tells us not only the story of the box (which it does) but also the story of the world economy, and regulation, and competition, and unionisation and economies of scale. Highly recommended.


How 2ab explains net neutrality

I’ve temporarily resurrected my blog on the Indian National Interest, and this post is mirrored from there. This is a serious argument, btw. After a prolonged discussion at Takshashila this morning, I convinced myself that net neutrality is a good idea.

So Prime Minister Narendra Modi has set off this little storm on Twitter by talking about the relationship between India and Canada being similar to the “2ab term” in the expansion of (a+b)^2 .

Essentially, Modi was trying to communicate that the whole of the relationship between India and Canada is greater than the sum of parts, and it can be argued that the lack of a “cos \theta” term there implies that he thinks India and Canada’s interests are perfectly aligned (assuming a vector sum).

But that is for another day, for this post is about net neutrality. So how does 2ab explain net neutrality? The fundamental principle of the utility of the Internet is Metcalfe’s law which states that the value of a telecommunications network is proportional to the square of the number of entities in the network. In other words, if a network has n entities, the value of these n entities being connected is given by the formula k n^2 . We can choose the unit in which we express utility such that we can set k = 1, which means that the value of the network is n^2.

Now, the problem with not having net neutrality is that it can divide the internet into a set of “walled gardens”. If your internet service provider charges you differentially to access different sites, then you are likely to use more of the sites that are cheaper and less of the more expensive sites. Now, if different internet service providers will charge different websites and apps differently, then it is reasonable assume that the sites that customers of different internet services access are going to be different?

Let us take this to an extreme, and to the hypothetical case where there are two internet service providers, and they are not compatible with each other, in that the network that you can access through one of these providers is completely disjoint from the network that you can access through the other provider (this is a thought experiment and an extreme hypothetical case). Effectively, we can think of them as being two “separate internets” (since they don’t “talk to” each other at all).

Now, let us assume that there are a users on the first internet, and b users on the second (this is bad nomenclature according to mathematical convention, where a and b are not used for integer variables, but there is a specific purpose here, as we can see). What is the total value of the internet(s)?

Based on the formula described earlier in the post, given that these two internets are independent, the total value is a^2 + b^2. Now, if we were to tear down the walls, and combine the two internets into one, what will be the total value? Now that we have one network of (a+b) users, the value of the network is (a+b)^2 or a^2 + 2 ab + b^2 . So what is the additional benefit that we can get by imposing net neutrality, which means that we will have one internet? 2 ab, of course!

In other words, while allowing internet service providers to charge users based on specific services might lead to additional private benefits to both the providers (higher fees) and users (higher quality of service), it results in turning the internet into some kind of a walled garden, where the aggregate value of the internet itself is diminished, as explained above. Hence, while differential pricing (based on service) might be locally optimal (at the level of the individual user or internet service provider), it is suboptimal at the aggregate level, and has significant negative externalities.

#thatswhy we need net neutrality.

Why Google, Facebook, etc. are against Net Neutrality in India

I’ve been out of country for close to a month now, so haven’t really been following India news too closely (apart from via social media). But from my (biased :) ) sources I understand that TRAI has put out a discussion paper in which they want to permit telecom companies to charge you based on the service that you use, thus violating Net Neutrality.

Now I’m yet to take a stand on this (this argument by Tim Harford against Net Neutrality is rather compelling, making me believe that well implemented competition regulations can mean we can make do without Net Neutrality, but I haven’t given it too much thought yet), but I have an idea as to why the likes of Google and Facebook, which in the past and in other geographies have come out strongly in favour of Net Neutrality, are okay with Net Neutrality violation in India.

The basic issue in India is with “over the top” services such as WhatsApp and Viber which the likes of Airtel and Vodafone see as a threat for it competes with their rather lucrative voice and SMS business. I’ve mentioned in the past that there’s a quality issue here which the telecom companies can differentiate on (packet switching doesn’t work that well for voice), but given costs it is hard to make a compelling case for using circuit switching for international calls.

So the likes of Airtel and Vodafone are threatened by such services and want to charge users more for using WhatsApp and Viber compared to other applications. Net Neutrality supporters, who argue that internet infrastructure should just be a set of neutral pipes (rather than a “two-sided platform”, as Harford argues), argue that this is unfair, and that Airtel and Vodafone are exploiting their positions as gatekeepers (literally) to defend their own related business.

Coming to the point of this post, entities such as Google and Facebook are coming out on the “wrong” side of the net neutrality debate here in India, arguing that internet companies should be looked at as two-sided platform markets rather than neutral pipes (resisted the urge to use the phrase “information superhighway” there!). Considering that they’re proponents of Net Neutrality elsewhere, why are they taking this stance in India?

Assuming that final regulations come out in favour of net neutrality (treating internet as infrastructure, and not a platform), how should the likes of Airtel and Vodafone react? Clearly their data business is cannibalising their voice business, so they should logically increase their prices for data plans (no brainer). Given that they will not be allowed (in this situation) to charge differential rates based on the service, they will have to uniformly jack up data rates.

This can be troublesome for Google and Facebook on two counts. Firstly, the telecom providers may not get their pricing right, and rather than having a ramp (charging heavy users heavily, since only such people will be using WhatsApp or Viber), they might increase data rates across the board. This will result in a drop in mobile internet penetration (one reason it’s so high now is that it’s cheap), and considering that Google and Facebook are services that pretty much every who uses the internet in India uses, it will result in loss of user base, traffic and revenue (possibly) for them.

The second problem is that even if telecom operators get their pricing right (maintain current pricing for basic plans, but jack up rates for high data usage) it spells trouble for Google and Facebook. One of Google’s widely used services is the video streaming application Youtube, and Youtube consumes high bandwidth. Facebook is getting into native video in a big way, and it is estimated that it might be more successful than Youtube in terms of advertising. And with correct internet pricing under net neutrality, demand for services such as Youtube and Facebook Video will go down significantly, which is not good for those services.

So the simple answer is that the reason Google and Facebook are coming out against Net Neutrality is that they are coming out on the right side of the new proposed (anti neutrality) regulations. Like WhatsApp and Viber, they too are high bandwidth applications, but unlike WhatsApp or Viber they don’t compete directly with the owners of the pipes. Thus, they want providers to have the ability to impose differential pricing, since that will mean that subscribers can access their content for cheaper, and this allows them to make more advertising revenues.

In my view (again note that I’m yet to take a stand on this net neutrality business), this move by Google and Facebook to support the anti-neutrality regulations is extremely short-sighted since it can hit them back at a later point in time. There is no guarantee that in the long term their services will not compete with that of telecom providers (Hangouts? Facebook voice calling?) and the regulations that they are currently supporting can come back to hit them at a later point in time.

It seems that Google and Facebook are working on an assumption that there will not be other high-bandwidth applications that will compete less with pipe-owners (telecom operators) than them (Google & Facebook). They are very likely to be in for a surprise, and end up as the cranes in this Panchatantra story.