Power to the People! – Public Spaces and The Availablity of Power Outlets and Surge Protectors

Scouting and finding an available power outlet in a library, airport, coffee shop, or some other public space to charge up your cell phone and/or power up your laptop can be a tricky situation (especially in airports!).  The search for an available outlet can be futile from the lack of power outlets provided in public spaces and also the competition amongst other people wanting to power their electronic devices.  Sometimes it’s not worth searching at all since all of the power outlets are probably already in use.

What creates this problem is the free and unlimited use of public power outlets (This is true unless the building charges an hourly rate for WiFi use).  Also, some buildings were never designed for such demand of power outlets resulting in some power outlets being located in impossible to find or inconvenient locations.   No one wants to be that person that creates a tripping hazard or to find themselves near the maintenance or janitor area of a building.  This struggle to find an available power outlet is especially true at airports.   Take a look at the blog post by Freakonomics economist Steven Levitt (here) and the blog posts of others detailing their own situations with public power outlets (See herehere, here, here, and here).  Even a database has been created to help guide passengers to public power outlets at airports. As such, the poor design in airports and other public spaces which limit the accessibility of power outlets creates the unspoken rule of first come first serve for the use of power outlets.  Fortunately,  many places are adapting to the 21st century use of electronic devices and are providing more and better access to power outlets at public spaces.

I recall my own exhaustive scouting experiences at Sacramento State University’s library and at Denver International Airport where finding an available power outlet was a competitive and impossible task.*  The library at California State University had sparse amount of power outlets near study areas and many of the available outlets were located on walkways creating a tripping hazard if anyone were to plug their laptop or cell phone.  Yet many students still plugged in and utilize the precious commodity while endangering fellow students.

Denver International Airport’s Concourse A Terminal, home of Frontier Airlines, had a similar situation as Sacramento State University where there was a lack of power outlets and most were already being used.  I saw some people in the darkest corners of the airport using a power outlet while others seem to have set up camp around their claimed outlet signaling that they were going to be there for the long haul.  I flew out of Denver in March 2010 and was snowed in for one night.  The situation offered me way too much time to try to waste, so I wasted my time to observe and partake in this power outlet competition.  I had enough time to kill to walk and cover the entire terminal twice, and I distinctly remember noticing the lack of power outlets available.  Somehow after aimlessly roaming around the airport, I and two friends I made that night found a small corner of the terminal in a  maintenance section that had a power outlet.  We camped out there over the sleepless night until we had to catch our morning flights.  I noticed that night that other passengers camped out near their claimed power outlets while others sometimes disturbed others to get to one of the two available powers plugs.  Not only were power outlets in short supply, space to sleep was also scarce (see picture below).  Regardless, having plenty of power outlets in airports are necessary since a charged phone or laptop is needed for passengers to coordinate with others on their changing travel plans.  (Yes, there are pay phones at airports but no pay phone has a programmed contact list of phone numbers and email addresses.)

March 2010, passengers try to sleep after being snowed in at the second floor of Terminal A at Denver International Airport. If I recall, I believe there were between one or two power outlets on the right wall here. March 2010.

So instead of preparing yourself with a 3-outlet adapter for the rare chance of finding one plug at an available power outlet and can charge more than one electronic device, building planners ought to plan for such demand for power outlets.  So just like toilets and parking spaces, building planners should plan for these ancillary devices so that they are available and accessible in even for high-demand situations like my experience at Denver International Airport.

My recent exploration of Colorado State University’s library confirmed that the design of available and accessible power is possible.  Not only were there plenty of power outlets, but almost every study table had a surge protector so that multiple users can use the same outlet.  Also, most of the private desks had their own power outlet along with an Ethernet plug.  Even the local McDonald’s near campus has a cafe style set up where some of the seats have their own personal outlets and ethernet plugs.  Here are pictures I took as evidence:

Colorado State University Library private study area. August 2010.

Colorado State University Library group study table. August 2010.

Mcdonalds dining area near Colorado State University campus

Cafe like design at this McDonald's with power outlets near private sitting areas. August 2010.

I hope planners and building designers adopt policies adding more available power outlets to public places since power (free of charge or not) in public spaces should be available for anyone who needs to utilize it.  No one wants to disrupt a delicate situation by disturbing a sleeping stranger at an airport setting like the Mom and son in the picture below.  (No, the two cell phones being charged are not both theirs.)

March 2010, Mom and son sleeping over night at Denver International Airport after flight is canceled. Notice the power outlet being used (by other passengers) to charge their cell phones. March 2010.

*The last time I was in Sacramento State University’s library was in the Spring of 2009.  I did my undergraduate degree 2002-2006 and my graduate degree at Sacramento State University 2006-2009  I hope they have since adapted by providing power routers in their library and other public places.


An Unintended Consequence of Peak Pricing

Click Picture for Metropolitan Transportation Commission's (MTC) Toll Page

Bay Area commuters are experiencing new toll charges at their Bay Area bridges this month (July 2010). One of the more interesting toll changes is the congestion pricing schedule implemented at the Bay Bridge.  The pricing schedule works out where for single drivers, the toll Monday through Friday is $6 during commute (peak) hours and $4 during the non-commute (off-peak) hours.  Carpools will now be charged $2.50.

The single driver toll is $5 all day on weekends.  The idea is reduce congestion during the peak hours by price discriminating commuters to incentivize them to decide and use alternative modes of transportation or to cross the bridge during the off-peak hours.

Yet something interesting occurred the first day of the pricing scheme, as reported by the San Jose Mercury News reports (and also reported here), moments before 10 a.m. when the toll switched from $6 to $4 drivers started to slow down or stop.  The San Jose Mercury News reported that:

Motorists slowed up considerably, even stopped, as they approached the toll gates at 9:57 a.m., three minutes before tolls were scheduled to drop $2.

“You bet I waited,” yelled out one of those drivers, a guy in a beat-up red Oldsmobile as he inched ahead after tolls fell from $6 to $4. “I’m saving a couple of bucks.”

I am curious how widespread this is during this hour and if it occurs daily.  If drivers are aware of the peak pricing schedule, I am sure no one wants to be the last car and arrive at 9:59:59 a.m. (yes, early by one second) and pay the peak price toll.*  As such, the peak pricing schedule appears to be flawed system during this time period when the price to travel across the bridge depends on a matter of minutes or seconds.  Will many drivers then react daily by doing what the driver in the Oldsmobile did by slowing up and causing congestion for all the drivers behind him?  Further,  how about when the price is scheduled to switch from $4 to $6?  Would some drivers then react by aggressively speeding to the toll both before the toll switches to the higher rate?  Seems like the benefits from the peak pricing schedule would be negated by the behavior of drivers during these periods when the toll price changes.**

Unlike peak pricing schedules, the San Jose Mercury news article also reports of a different congestion pricing system that will be implemented on Interstate 680.  It is a responsive system, and the article reports:

But South Bay commuters won’t have such an obvious strategy for timing their commute when congestion pricing comes to Interstate 680’s southbound carpool lane later this year. That’s because the form of pricing there may vary every few minutes for the 14-mile drive from Highway 84 to Calaveras Boulevard.

It could be a $3 trip at 7 a.m. for solo drivers to buy their way into the diamond lane. But another driver entering the same lane a few minutes later could pay more as traffic stalls, or less if the commute suddenly eases.

With less warning on 680 and other freeways like 580, 85 and 101, where congestion pricing will be introduced in carpool lanes over the next several years, it’ll be harder to figure out what time to best avoid higher tolls and still get a faster drive.

Thus the toll used on 680’s HOT (High Occupancy Toll) lane will be real-time pricing and will be based on current demand and not by predicted demand pricing like the Bay Bridge’s peak pricing system.  This logic follows the late Nobel Laureate William Vickrey work on responsive pricing where he argued that real-time responsive pricing is a more effective to reduce congestion by allowing for an immediate feedback loop enabling users to respond to unexpected demand and supply shocks (Vickrey, 1971).  A peak pricing system would prohibit users to adjust their behavior during unpredicted market fluctuations since the prices would be fixed and set in advance.  So real-time pricing then is preferable by avoiding the inefficiencies created by having prices generated without an immediate feedback loop.  Expectations of price changes and other information play a central role in the behavioral decisions of users.

Yet I am not sure if the randomness of a responsive price system would be acceptable to Bay Bridge commuters, but at least it would be a more effective way to manage and measure congestion.  Moreover, it would eliminate this apparent unintended consequence of drivers at the toll plaza slowing or speeding up during the moment a scheduled toll price change occurs.  Besides if the responsive price system was implemented and the price ended up always near its upper limit and never near the minimum price, then at least policy makers concerned about congestion can justify an increase in the upper limit of the responsive price system.

*Would (some) drivers then hope for more congestion before they arrive at the toll plaza when the price changes downward to assure them of the cheaper toll?

**This peak pricing issue could also be applied to the peak pricing systems currently being applied to on-street parking (parking is one of my favorite topics).  Drivers wanting to park and avoid the peak price charge would do similar behavior, as mentioned above, where they would wait either in their parked car (if they are lucky to find a spot) hoping that a meter maid does not ticket them or might drive aimlessly around the block before parking to avoid a peak pricing charge and/or being ticketed for arriving early.  If the driver decided to drive aimlessly to pass the time to avoid the peak price, then that driver is not only imposing costs on others by increasing congestion, wasting fuel, and putting pedestrians at danger, but also imposing costs on him or herself .  The driver would have rather not waste their time driving aimlessly but actually reach their destination and not wait in their car.

Vickrey, W. (1971) “Responsive Pricing of Public Utility Services.” The Bell Journal of Economics and Management Services, 2 (1), 337-346.