Tag: transit

Move DC or Move Out of DC?

Washington DC has proposed an anti-auto transportation plan that is ironically called “MoveDC” when its real goal is to reduce the mobility of DC residents. The plan calls for reducing auto commuting from 54 percent to no more than 25 percent of all workers in the district, while favoring transit, cycling, and walking.

Click image to download the plan’s executive summary. Click here to download other parts of the plan.

The plan would discourage auto driving by tolling roads entering the district and cordon-pricing. Tolls aren’t necessarily a bad idea: as I explained in this paper, properly designed tolls can relieve congestion and actually increase roadway capacities. But you can count on DC to design them wrong, using them more as a punitive and fundraising tool than as a way to relieve congestion. Cordon pricing is invariably a bad idea, much more of a way for cities to capture dollars from suburban commuters than to influence travel habits.

The plan assumes that the district’s population will increase by 170,000 people over the next 25 years, which is supposed to have some kind of apocalyptic result if all of those people drive as much as people drive today. The district’s official population in 2010 was 602,000 people, a 155,000-person drop from 1970. While Census Bureau estimates say the district’s population is once again growing, it doesn’t seem all that apocalyptic if the population returns to 1970 levels.

The Census Bureau estimates that 54 percent of people employed in the district drove to work, while only 37 percent took transit in 2012. Since part of the MoveDC plan calls for discouraging people outside the district from driving to work in the district, it appears the goal is to cut that 54 percent by more than half. DC’s plan to discourage driving by taxing commuters through cordon pricing is more likely to push jobs into the suburbs than to reach this goal.

Congestion isn’t a serious problem in the district, mainly because the legal height limit prevents Manhattan-like job concentrations. Instead, the main congestion problems are on the highways entering the district. These problems can be solved through congestion tolls, which would encourage some travelers to shift the time they drive. Because road capacities dramatically decline when they become congested, keeping the roads uncongested would effectively double their capacity during rush hour, which ironically could allow even more people to drive to work. DC’s anti-auto planners won’t want to do that, which is why they are likely to focus more on cordon pricing than congestion tolling.

If reducing congestion isn’t the issue, then what is the goal of the anti-auto emphasis? MoveDC says it is “rapidly rising travel costs, and concerns about rising carbon emissions.” People deal with rising travel costs by replacing their cars less frequently and buying more fuel-efficient cars when they do replace them. MoveDC’s solution is to substitute high-cost urban transit for low-cost driving, even though transit actually emits more greenhouse gases per passenger mile than driving.

Transportation Cliff or Pothole?

Recent news reports have zeroed in on Washington’s next “cliff,” the “transportation cliff” that is expected to happen when the federal Highway Trust Fund runs out of money sometime this summer. Most of those articles have a hidden agenda: to increase spending for transit even though transit now gets 20 percent of federal surface transport dollars but carries little more than 1 percent of the travel carried by automobiles (about 55 billion passenger miles by transit vs. 4.3 trillion passenger miles in cars and light trucks). This post will explain some of the politics of the transportation cliff.

1. Why are we about to go off a transportation cliff?

Since 1956, federal highway programs have been financed with federal gasoline taxes. Those revenues go into the so-called Highway Trust Fund (“so-called” because it’s no longer very trustworthy) and then are distributed to the states for highway construction and maintenance. In 1982, Congress began dedicating a small but growing share of gas taxes to transit. Today, more than 20 percent of federal gas taxes are spent on transit, and there is no guarantee that the remaining 80 percent goes for highways, as Congress often diverts some of that money to such things as bike paths, national park visitor centers, museums, and other local pork barrel projects.

Congress reauthorizes this spending every few years. Traditionally, an authorization bill provides a spending ceiling. But the 2005 reauthorization bill made spending mandatory, meaning the ceiling was also the floor. (In 2012, Congress passed another reauthorization bill. That one didn’t mandate spending, but Congress went ahead and spent to the limit anyway, knowing full well that this would mean the Highway Trust Fund would be exhausted by sometime in 2014.)

When the 2008 financial crisis led to a reduction in driving, gas tax revenues failed to keep up with spending. Since then, Congress has had to supplement gas taxes with about $55 billion in general funds in order to keep the Highway Trust Fund from running out of money.

Anti-auto interest groups often portray these supplements as highway subsidies. But they would not be necessary if Congress weren’t diverting 20 percent of gas tax revenues to transit. Although more money goes to highways than to transit, because highways are so much more heavily used, federal subsidies to transit are about 80 times as great, per passenger mile, as federal subsidies to highways.

The Transit Train Wreck

Investigators have concluded that the driver of the CTA train that crashed at O’Hare earlier this week slept through the stop. Moreover, she apparently had a record of falling asleep at work before. However, investigators also concluded that two back-up systems that should have stopped the train before it crashed even without a waking driver failed as well.

We’ve spent roughly $1 trillion on transit since 1970 for not much return. Capital spending before 1990 is not available, but probably followed a trajectory similar to operating subsidies (=op costs minus fares). Click image to download a spreadsheet with these and other data mentioned in this post.

Meanwhile, the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) defends its claim that recent ridership statistics represent a genuine “shift in American travel behavior.” While it admits that per capita ridership has declined since 2008, it blames that on the recession. It prefers to go back to 1995, “because after that year, ridership increased due to the passage of the landmark ISTEA legislation and other surface transportation bills which increased funding for public transportation.” Effectively, APTA argues that people will ride transit if you subsidize them enough, and so therefore subsidies should be increased still further.

(By the way, APTA responded to my statement that virtually all of the growth in ridership in 2013 took place in New York City, saying, “That statement is not true… . Many other systems across the country saw ridership gains last year.” But I never said that every single transit system outside of New York declined, only that the sum total, minus New York, declined, which is easily verified from APTA’s own data.)

APTA is correct that transit ridership bottomed out in 1995, at least according to its numbers. (Federal Transit Administration numbers are a little different and show ridership bottoming out in 1993.) But it is a stretch to say that subsidies are responsible for the growth in ridership since 1995 (or ‘93). Both operating and capital subsidies to transit have grown steadily since the mid 1960s, but ridership hasn’t always followed.

In particular, ridership declined through 1972 to about 6.6 million trips, then increased through 1980 to about 8.5 million trips, hovered around there for about a decade, then declined from 8.9 million trips in 1989 to 7.8 million trips in 1995, then increased to 10.5 million trips in 2008, and has hovered around there since then. If increased subsidies were responsible for the increase after 1995, why didn’t increased subsidies lead to increased ridership between 1965 and 1972 or between 1989 and 1995?

Lessons from the New Transit Data

The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) argues that a 0.7 percent increase in annual transit ridership in 2013 is proof that Americans want more “investments” in transit–by which the group means more federal funding. However, a close look at the actual data reveals something entirely different.

It turns out that all of the increase in transit ridership took place in New York City. New York City subway and bus ridership grew by 120 million trips in 2013; nationally, transit ridership grew by just 115 million trips. Add in New York commuter trains (Long Island Railroad and Metro North) and New York City transit ridership grew by 123 million trips, which means transit in the rest of the nation declined by 8 million trips. As the New York Times observes, the growth in New York City transit ridership resulted from “falling unemployment,” not major capital improvements. 

Meanwhile, light-rail and bus ridership both declined in Portland, which is often considered the model for new transit investments. Light-rail ridership grew in Dallas by about 300,000 trips, but bus ridership declined by 1.7 million trips. Charlotte light rail gained 27,000 new rides in 2013, but Charlotte buses lost 476,000 rides. Declines in bus ridership offset part or all of the gains in rail ridership in Chicago, Denver, Salt Lake City, and other cities. Rail ridership declined in Albuquerque, Baltimore, Minneapolis, Sacramento, and on the San Francisco BART system, among other places. 

APTA wants people to believe that transit is an increasingly important form of transportation. In fact, it is increasingly irrelevant. Although urban driving experienced a downward blip after the 2008 crash, it is now rising again, while transit outside of New York City is declining. Source: Urban driving data from Federal Highway Administration, urban population from the Census Bureau, and transit numbers from APTA. Transit PM = transit passenger miles.

Rail and bus ridership have grown in Seattle and a few other cities, but the point is that construction of expensive transit projects with federal funds is not guaranteed to boost transit ridership. In many cases, overall transit ridership declines because the high costs of running the rail systems forces transit agencies to cut bus service.

APTA wants more federal funding because many of its associate members are rail contractors who depend on federal grants to build obsolete transit systems. Light-rail lines being planned or built today cost an average of more than $100 million per mile, while some cities have built new four-lane freeways for $10 million to $20 million per mile, and each of those freeway lanes will move far more people per day than a light-rail line. 

Congress will be reconsidering federal funding for highways and transit this year, and APTA wants as much money as possible diverted to transit. President Obama has proposed a 250 percent increase in deficit spending on transportation, most of which would go to transit.

Transit only carries about 1 percent of urban travel, yet it already receives more than 20 percent of federal surface transportation dollars. Since most of those federal dollars come out of gas taxes, auto drivers are being forced to subsidize rail contractors, often to the detriment of low-income transit riders whose bus services are cut in order to pay for rail lines into high-income neighborhoods.

The real problem with our transportation system is not a shortage of funds, but too much money being spent in the wrong places. New York City transit was the only major transit system in the country that covered more than half its operating costs out of fares in 2012; the average elsewhere was less than 30 percent. Funding transportation out of user fees, such as mileage-based user fees and transit fares, would give transportation agencies incentives to spend the money where it is needed by transport users, not where it will create the most pork for politicians. 

California Thinks Your Time Is Worthless

California’s S.B. 375 mandates that cities increase the population densities of targeted neighborhoods because everyone knows that people drive less in higher densities and transit-oriented developments relieve congestion. One problem, however, is that transportation models reveal that increased densities actually increase congestion, as measured by “level of service,” which measures traffic as a percent of a roadway’s capacity and which in turn can be used to estimate the hours of delay people suffer.

The California legislature has come up with a solution: S.B. 743, which exempts cities from having to calculate and disclose levels of service in their environmental impact reports for densification projects. Instead, the law requires planners to come up with alternative measures of the impacts of densification.

On Monday, December 30, the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research released a “preliminary evaluation of alternative methods of transportation analysis. The document notes that one problem with trying to measure levels of service is that it is “difficult and expensive to calculate.” Well, boo hoo. Life is complicated, and if you want to centrally plan society, you can either deal with difficult and expensive measurement problems, or you will botch things up even worse than if you do deal with those problems.

The paper also argues that measuring congestion leads people to want projects that might actually relieve congestion, such as increasing roadway capacities. This would be bad, says the paper, because increased capacities might simply “induce” more travel. The fact that such increased travel might actually produce some economic benefits for the state is ignored. Instead, suppressing travel (and therefore suppressing economic productivity) should be the goal.

The document suggests five alternative measures of the impacts of densfication on transportation:

  1. Vehicle miles traveled;
  2. Auto trips generated;
  3. Multi-model level of service;
  4. Auto fuel use; and
  5. Motor vehicle hours traveled.

There are many problems with these alternatives. First, they really aren’t any simpler to reliably calculate than levels of service. Second, they ignore the impact on people’s time and lives: if densification reduces per capita vehicle miles traveled by 1 percent, planners will regard it as a victory even if the other 99 percent of travel is slowed by millions of hours per year. Third, despite the “multi-modal” measure, these measures ignore the environmental impacts of transit. For example, they propose to estimate automotive fuel consumption, but ignore transit energy consumption.

Worst of all, the final “measure” proposed by state planners is to simply presume, without making any estimates, that there is no significant transportation impact from densification. After all, if you add one vehicle to a congested highway and traffic bogs down, can you blame that one vehicle, or is everyone else equally to blame? If the latter, then it seems ridiculous, at least to the planners, to blame densification for increased congestion when the existing residents contribute to the congestion as well. By the same token, if an airplane is full, and one more person wants to take that flight, then the airline should punish everyone who is already on board by simply delaying the plane until someone voluntarily gets off.

The real problem is that planners and planning enthusiasts in the legislature don’t like the results of their own plans, so they simply want to ignore them. What good is an environmental impact report process if the legislature mandates that any impacts it doesn’t like should simply not be evaluated in that process?

All of this is a predictable outcome of attempts to improve peoples’ lives through planning. Planners can’t deal with complexity, so they oversimplify. Planners can’t deal with letting people make their own decisions, so they try to constrict those decisions. Planners can’t imagine that anyone wants to live any way but the way planners think they should live, so they ignore the 80 to 90 percent who drive and want to live in single-family homes as they impose their lifestyle ideologies on as many people as possible. The result is the planning disaster known as California.

Transit Spending Slows Urban Growth

Contrary to the claims of many transit advocates, regions that spend more money on transit seem to grow slower than regions that spend less. The fastest-growing urban areas of the country tend to offer transit service mainly to people who lack access to automobiles. Urban areas that seek to provide high-cost transit services, such as trains, in order to attract people out of their cars, tend to grow far slower.

Transit advocates often argue that a particular city or region must spend more on urban transit in order to support the growth of that region. To test that claim, I downloaded the latest historic data files from the National Transit Database, specifically the capital funding and service data and operating expenses by mode time series. These files list which urbanized area each transit agency primarily serves, so it was easy to compare these data with Census Bureau population data from 1990, 2000, and 2010.

The transit data include capital and operating expenses for all years from 1991 through 2011. I decided to compare the average of 1991 through 2000 per capita expenses with population growth in the 1990s, and the average of 2001 through 2010 per capita expenses with population growth in the 2010s. In case there is a delayed response, I also compared the average of 1990 through 2000 per capita expenses with population growth in the 2000s. Although it shouldn’t matter too much, I used GNP deflators to convert all costs to 2012 dollars.

Transit Ridership Falls Since 2008

The lies begin right in the headline of the American Public Transportation Association’s annual press release patting the industry on the back for carrying heavily subsidized riders last year. “Record 10.5 Billion Trips Taken On U.S. Public Transportation In 2012,” claims the press release headline.

The text reveals that it wasn’t actually a record at all, but merely the “second-highest ridership since 1957.” When was the first highest? In 2008, meaning the headline would have been more accurate if it had read, “Transit Ridership Falls Since 2008.”

Of course, as a lobby group, APTA is paid to promote the transit industry. Reporters are also paid to see through lobbyists’ lies, but unfortunately many of them simply modestly rewrite the press release while others add their own questionable analyses.

Source: Auto driving is from the Federal Highway Administration’s Highway Statistics series, while the transit numbers are from APTA’s own Public Transportation Fact Book.

Anti-auto writers gleefully report that transit ridership is growing faster than driving. While it is true that urban driving has stagnated since the 2008 financial crisis, the chart above shows that transit has a long way to go to catch up with driving. (Note that DC Streets Blog reports on total driving, while I use urban driving, which is a better comparison with urban transit.)

In 2012, transit carried about 1.8 percent of motorized urban passenger miles, which is about what transit’s share of urban passenger miles has been, plus or minus 0.1 percent, since 1993. Before then, it was 2.1 percent in 1990, 3.1 percent in 1980, and 4.7 percent in 1970. The roughly half a trillion dollars spent subsidizing transit since 1970 hasn’t done much good.

Another point APTA carefully neglects to mention is that urban population growth is the main source of transit ridership growth. Transit carried about 44 trips per urban resident in 2012, which is about what it has been, plus or minus 1 trip, since 2005. Prior to that, they grew since 1995, when they were just 38, but steadily shrank before then. In 1990, there were 47 trips per capita and in 1980 there were 51.

The press release also reports that the fastest growing form of transit is light rail. But it neglects to mention that that is mainly because of new construction. In fact, the miles of rail are growing far faster than rail riders.

In 1994, light rail carried more than 500,000 trips per route mile. By 1999 this had fallen below 400,000 trips per mile; by 2012 it was down to 300,000 trips per mile. With rising construction costs and falling ridership per mile, light rail is suffering from some seriously diminishing returns.

It is certainly reasonable to ask whether the stagnation of urban driving is a trend or simply a reflection of the recession and high unemployment rates among young people. But it is not reasonable to think that transit is providing an adequate substitute for urban driving.

According to the Federal Highway Administration’s traffic volume trends, urban driving declined by 11 billion vehicle miles between 2007 and 2012. Considering average occupancy rates, that’s roughly 16 billion passenger miles. In that time period, urban transit gained about 3 billion passenger miles, all of them between 2007 and 2008. To the extent that people really are driving less, it is more because they are traveling less than that they are riding transit more.