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August 20, 2007

Cars vs Transit is like Packets vs ... Packets

A genius I know once wrote an article that some say brought the distinction between packet-switched and circuit-switched networks into the popular consciousness. In the decade or so since, we have seen packet-switched networks take over the world, and unfortunately some people find themselves tempted to abuse this bit of history in arguing related points. The gist of it will always be something to the effect of: "the thing I support is like Packets, the other thing is like Circuits, and since we all know that Packets beat Circuits, I must be right." (This is not unlike how many in my extended family will take anything they think is sufficiently bad and compare it to Hitler.)

For example, a recent piece (of what I don't know) by Stephen Fleming of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, entitled In Transportation and in Technology, Packets Beat Circuits, starts off "Why are so many mass transit policies doomed to failure? Because packets beat circuits. Let's explore an analogy."

You can imagine where it goes from there ("cars are like packets, mass transit is like circuits, so cars are better"). The guy claims to have worked in digital communications for 10 years; I wonder if he's just bitter because he was on the wrong side of the packets vs circuits debate.

For the sake of all 6 people likely to read this, I hereby debunk this terrible analogy:

The fundamental aspect of a circuit-switched network, as stated in the first sentence of the Wikipedia article on Circuit Switching is that it "establishes a dedicated circuit (or channel) between nodes and terminals." That is, the bandwidth for the flow is reserved end-to-end for the life of the circuit. Traditionally, when I make a phone call, part of the 'space' on a bunch of copper wires connecting where I'm calling from to where I'm calling to is reserved even if no one is saying anything over the line.

Clearly a road network is not circuit-switched -- when you start out from your house you don't have a dedicated lane all the way to your destination (if you did, I might just own a car). In a circuit-switched transit network, not only would I have a seat on one R train from Union Street to Union Square, I would have a seat on every R train over the same route for the duration of my trip. Realizing this, the analogy breaks down completely.

Fleming's main argument as to why Transit is like Circuits is that the bandwidth hierarchy, in traveling by train, then bus, then feet, is like the digital transmission hierarchy of telephone (i.e. circuit-switched) networks. Perhaps he lives and works directly on top of an interstate and has never driven by highway, then arterial, then local street in his car. Or never noticed that the bandwidth on his home broadband connection is orders of magnitude smaller than the trans-Atlantic fiber lines that connected me in London to his web server in Georgia.

In a circuit-switched network, I only use as much bandwidth as I need at that moment, and only on the single link I'm currently traversing. When I get to the end of that link, I am put in a queue until the next link on my path is ready to receive me. It's true that it's a bit more obvious to see a road/auto network as analogous to a packet-switched network, but only because of the apparent simplicity of the rules of the system. Transit networks are of the same nature, it's just that the way packets (i.e. people!) are queued and switched where links connect is more complicated and constrained than on roads.

Speaking in data-network terms that we are all familiar with, transit mops up auto when it comes to bandwidth (total bits, or people, per unit time). The problem with transit is, in some circumstances, higher end-to-end latency (the time it takes for the first bit, or person, to get where they're going). But once you get the flow started, we all know that one track of even light rail service can carry the same number of passengers per hour (or was it bits per second) as 7 lanes of freeway or 17 lanes of street (see here).

Unfortunately, people actually read and believe this kind of proof-by-bad-analogy thinking. In a recent newsletter from the Reason Foundation, Robert Poole, Reason's Director of Transportation Studies, claims to have had his "Aha!" moment when reading Fleming's piece. Too bad for him the "Aha!" wasn't a realization to be much more careful with his analogies.

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