Monday, April 19, 2021

Irrational Covid Vaccine Fears

Excerpts from an article titled Irrational Covid Fears by David Leonhardt, of The NYT

Guido Calabresi, a federal judge and Yale law professor, invented a little fable that he has been telling law students for more than three decades.

He tells the students to imagine a god coming forth to offer society a wondrous invention that would improve everyday life in almost every way. It would allow people to spend more time with friends and family, see new places and do jobs they otherwise could not do. But it would also come with a high cost. In exchange for bestowing this invention on society, the god would choose 1,000 young men and women and strike them dead.

Calabresi then asks: Would you take the deal? Almost invariably, the students say no. The professor then delivers the fable’s lesson: “What’s the difference between this and the automobile?”

In truth, automobiles kill many more than 1,000 young Americans each year; the total U.S. death toll hovers at about 40,000 annually. We accept this toll, almost unthinkingly, because vehicle crashes have always been part of our lives. We can’t fathom a world without them.

It’s a classic example of human irrationality about risk. We often underestimate large, chronic dangers, like car crashes or chemical pollution, and fixate on tiny but salient risks, like plane crashes or shark attacks. [Or thrombosis from a vaccine.]

The vaccines have nearly eliminated death, hospitalization and other serious Covid illness among people who have received shots. The vaccines have also radically reduced the chances that people contract even a mild version of Covid or can pass it on to others.

Yet many vaccinated people continue to obsess over the risks from Covid — because they are so new and salient.

To take just one example, major media outlets trumpeted new government data last week showing that 5,800 fully vaccinated Americans had contracted Covid. That may sound like a big number, but it indicates that a vaccinated person’s chances of getting Covid are about one in 11,000. The chances of a getting a version any worse than a common cold are even more remote.

But they are not zero. And they will not be zero anytime in the foreseeable future. Victory over Covid will not involve its elimination. Victory will instead mean turning it into the sort of danger that plane crashes or shark attacks present — too small to be worth reordering our lives.

That is what the vaccines do. If you’re vaccinated, Covid presents a minuscule risk to you, and you present a minuscule Covid risk to anyone else. A car trip is a bigger threat, to you and others. About 100 Americans are likely to die in car crashes today. The new federal data suggests that either zero or one vaccinated person will die today from Covid.

Friday, April 16, 2021

Finally an Article that Describes Me Well: Why Some People Are Willing to Challenge Wrongs

"The traits of a moral rebel

First, moral rebels generally feel good about themselves. They tend to have high self-esteem and to feel confident about their own judgment, values and ability. They also believe their own views are superior to those of others, and thus that they have a social responsibility to share those beliefs.

Moral rebels are also less socially inhibited than others. They aren’t worried about feeling embarrassed or having an awkward interaction. Perhaps most importantly, they are far less concerned about conforming to the crowd. So, when they have to choose between fitting in and doing the right thing, they will probably choose to do what they see as right."

That's right!

SOURCE:  Analysis: Why some people are willing to challenge behavior they see as wrong despite personal risk

Friday, April 9, 2021

Urban Transit After COVID-19

 Excellent input by transportation experts Robert Poole and Steve Polzin.


Urban Transit After COVID-19

Here is a recent set of headlines from a couple of reputable sources, to introduce a discussion of how urban transit will need to change when we enter the post-pandemic period:

The reporters of these stories reflect genuine concerns, but my impression is that many in the transportation community have not fully thought through the implications for urban transit in the “after” COVID-19 times.

One expert who has is Steve Polzin, a former transit official, university professor, and most recently as a senior advisor for research and technology at the U.S. Department of Transportation. After reading a detailed paper that he and a colleague produced while at DOT last fall, Reason Foundation commissioned Polzin to write a policy brief focusing specifically on how transit will have to change, and why. The new report, “Public Transportation Must Change after COVID-19,” was published last week and you can find it here.

Polzin first reminds us that in the five years prior to the coronavirus pandemic, transit experienced a significant loss of ridership, before appearing to stabilize at a lower level by 2019. Then the pandemic led to former transit riders avoiding buses and rail transit in favor of cars, bikes, walking, and working at home. Comparing January 2020 (pre-pandemic) with January 2021, unlinked transit trips were 65% less (though transit vehicle miles of service decreased only 23% for the same months).

Alas for those hoping for a post-pandemic return to “normal,” among the factors leading to permanent changes are, of course, some degree of permanent shifts to working from home, either part-time or full-time, along with the continued popularity of network companies like Lyft and Uber, a millennial generation that is getting older and buying houses in the suburbs, and a general movement of people and companies from higher-density to lower-density locations.

Polzin points out that even if many people work at home Mondays and Fridays, but still work in the office mid-week, this will “make it harder to justify peak capacity capital investments and complicate service scheduling.” In terms of permanent work-at-home shifts, he notes that if this share doubles from pre-pandemic levels of 5.7% to about 12% of people working from home, that could mean 15%-to-20% fewer downtown workers, a major change for downtown-focused rail transit systems.

Another section of the brief looks at declining vehicle occupancy by transit mode: bus, light rail, heavy rail, and commuter rail. All four are down significantly, but some much more than others. And this makes a surprising difference in the environmental friendliness of these modes. Here is his comparison of pre-pandemic vs. December 2020 fuel economy of various commuter modes, drawn from the U.S. Department of Energy Alternative Fuels Data Center plus estimated occupancies from the National Transit Database. The metric is passenger miles per gasoline gallons equivalent; hence the highest numbers are best.

Commuting Mode Pre-COVID Current
Heavy rail 50.4 18.0
Automobiles 41.7 41.7*
Commuter rail 39.6 10.9
Light trucks/SUVs 36.1 36.1*
Transit bus 26.6 14.5
Demand response (Uber, Lyft) 9.2 9.2*

*assumed to be unchanged

As of December 2020, the most fuel-efficient means of commuting was the car, followed by light trucks—but only because occupancy embedded in the transit calculations was so drastically low. Obviously, when we get past the pandemic those figures should rise but whether mass transit will be able to rebuild enough ridership to be more fuel-efficient (and hence more carbon-friendly) remains to be seen, and as you can see from the current numbers, transit has a long way to go.

A major premise of the Biden administration’s transportation agenda is to greatly increase federal spending on transit, compared with only modest, constrained increases for highways (with very little scope for adding highway capacity). This approach poses major risks of putting billions of taxpayer dollars into projects that will have costs far greater than their benefits (e.g., light rail systems for medium-sized cities, megaproject expansions of heavy rail and commuter rail systems, etc.).

At the very least, it is premature at this juncture to commit funding for major new rail transit projects before we have some idea of the extent of transit ridership in the first several years after nationwide vaccinations.