Tag: transportation

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.

Your Freedom Is Someone Else’s Hell

Yonah Freemark, a writer over at Atlantic Cities–which normally loves any transit boondoggle–somewhat sheepishly admits that light rail hasn’t lived up to all of its expectations. Despite its popularity among transit agencies seeking federal grants, light rail “neither rescued the center cities of their respective regions nor resulted in higher transit use.”

Not to worry, however; Atlantic Cities still hates automobiles, or at least individually owned automobiles. Another article by writer Robin Chase suggests that driverless cars will create a “world of hell” if people are allowed to own their own cars. Instead, driverless cars should be welcomed only if they are collectively owned and shared.

The hell that would result from individually owned driverless cars would happen because people would soon discover they could send their cars places without anyone in them. As Chase says, “If single-occupancy vehicles are the bane of our congested highways and cities right now, imagine the congestion when we pour in unfettered zero-occupancy vehicles.” Never mind the fact that driverless cars will greatly reduce congestion by tripling roadway capacities and avoid congestion by consulting on-line congestion reports.

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. 

VMT Fees Yes — V2V No

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) says it wants to require auto makers to include vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communications systems in all new cars. Calling V2V “the next generation of auto safety improvements,” the agency says such devices would “improve safety by allowing vehicles to “talk” to each other and ultimately avoid many crashes altogether by exchanging basic safety data, such as speed and position, ten times per second.”

The government wants every vehicle on the road to transmit its location to every other nearby vehicle–as well as any other receivers that happen to be in range.

Supposedly, “the system as contemplated contains several layers of security and privacy protection.” However, privacy advocates should be far more suspicious of V2V than of electronic vehicle-mile fee systems. The big difference between them is that V2V by definition incorporates both a receiver and a transmitter, while it is possible to design vehicle-mile fee systems that do not include wireless transmitters. No transmitter means no invasion of privacy is possible; on the other hand, despite whatever privacy protection is included in V2V, a transmitter necessarily allows someone to receive the signal.

Perhaps the biggest argument against V2V is that it will soon be obsolete as a safety device, so mandating that it be included in cars adds an unnecessary expense to auto buyers. According to the NHTSA, V2V will “provide warnings to drivers so that they can prevent imminent collisions” but “not automatically operate any vehicle systems, such as braking or steering.” Yet many cars on the market today, such as the Ford Fusion shown above, do this and more solely with built-in radar or other sensors rather than V2V transmitters. Moreover, the occupants of such cars are safer even if no other car on the road has those sensors, which isn’t true of a V2V system.

The Ford Fusion is a mid-priced car that has numerous built-in radar sensors that can detect and warn drivers of potential collisions, even braking if necessary to avoid accidents–all without V2V transmissions.

Moreover, as contemplated by the NHTSA, V2V will not be mandated in cars before 2018 at the earliest. Yet the kind of self-driving cars that Nissan and other companies expect to have on the market by 2020 will use radar, infrared, lasers, or other means to detect all other vehicles on the road without transmitting any signals themselves. They would get no benefit from a wireless V2V system.

If systems that are already being included in more and more new cars work as well, if not better, than V2V, then why have V2V at all? It is worth noting that self-driving cars are coming from the private sector, while the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has expressed a go-slow attitude. Meanwhile, the push to mandate V2V comes from government agencies, both here and in Europe. I suspect governments are more interested in technologies that centralize transportation and communications, while private manufacturers are supporting technologies that promote decentralization.

In any case, it will be interesting to see if privacy groups protest this plan as loudly as they do proposals for vehicle-mile fees. Those who don’t may be using privacy concerns to cover their reluctance to paying the full cost of the roads they use. But, where VMT fees are an important step to using markets, rather than politics, to manage transportation systems, V2V is both a potential invasion of privacy and a waste of money.

MagLev: The Idea Whose Time Never Came

Superconducting magnetic levitation is the “next generation of transportation,” says a new rail advocacy group that calls itself The Northeast Maglev (TNEM). The group’s proposed New York-Washington maglev line has received attention from the Washington Post and Baltimore Sun. TNEM’s claims might have seemed valid 80 years ago, when maglev trains were first conceived, but today maglev is just one more superexpensive technology that can’t compete with what we already have.

Superconducting maglev train being tested in Japan. Wikimedia commons photo by Yosemite.

Maglev has all the defects of conventional high-speed rail with the added bonuses of higher costs and greater energy requirements. Unlike automobiles on roads, rails don’t go where you want to go when you want to go there. Compared with planes, even the fastest trains are slow, and modest improvements in airport security would do far more to speed travelers, at a far lower cost, than building expensive new rail infrastructure.

Hyperloop’s Real Problem

Most reviews of Elon Musk’s hyperloop plan focus on technical questions. Will it cost as little as he estimates? Could it move as fast as he projects? Could the system work at all?

None of these are the real problem with the hyperloop. The real problem is how an infrastructure-heavy, point-to-point system can possibly compete with personal vehicles that can go just about anywhere–the United States has more than 4 million miles of public roads–or with an airline system that requires very little infrastructure and can serve far more destinations than the hyperloop.

Musk promises the hyperloop will be fast. But fast is meaningless if it doesn’t go where you want to go. Musk estimates that people travel about 6 million trips a year between the San Francisco and Los Angeles urban areas, where he wants to build his first hyperloop line. But these urban areas are not points: they are huge, each covering thousands of square miles of land.

Airlines deal with these large areas through multiple airports. The Los Angeles area has five commercial airports and San Francisco has three. The hyperloop would only have one station in each region, making it inconvenient for the vast majority of people.

Moreover, airplanes from these airports can reach hundreds of other airports across the country and around the world. Even if Musk’s optimistic cost estimates are valid (and remember, the first cost estimate for California high-speed rail was about $10 billion, less than a tenth of the current estimate), the hyperloop would require billions of dollars spent on more infrastructure to add any new city.

Sprawl Does Not Reduce Economic Mobility

For the second time in a week, Paul Krugman has castigated urban sprawl. First, he blamed Detroit’s bankruptcy on “job sprawl,” when in fact many other factors are to blame and Krugman got his numbers wrong. Now he says Atlanta’s entrenched poverty is due to urban sprawl. “The city may just be too spread out,” he says, “so that job opportunities are literally out of reach for people stranded in the wrong neighborhoods.”

Krugman quotes the Equality of Opportunity Project, whose research found that one of many factors correlated with lower social mobility was “areas in which low income individuals were residentially segregated from middle income individuals.” But income segregation is very different from sprawl, and can take place in communities of any density. New York City, for example, has pretty high economic segregation.

Krugman adds that Atlanta’s sprawl “would make an effective public transportation system nearly impossible to operate even if politicians were willing to pay for it, which they aren’t.” He obviously doesn’t know the history of mass transit in Atlanta, which had a great transit system until regional leaders decided to build an expensive rail transit system. Since they aimed the rail lines at suburbanites and sacrificed bus service to inner-city neighborhoods to pay for rail construction, transit’s share of commuting has fallen by more than 60 percent and per capita transit ridership has fallen by more than two thirds.

Only 7 percent of Atlanta households lack a motor vehicle, and only 3.7 percent of Atlanta-area workers live in households that lack cars, which are both less than the national average. So jobs are not really out of reach to most people regardless of income. Krugman might argue that low-income people in Atlanta are forced to own cars because of sprawl, but for most people cars cost less and provide far better mobility than transit, so this is irrelevant.

The Equality of Opportunity Project found that economic mobility is low throughout the South (except Texas), not just in Atlanta. But the differences in the unit measured—the percentage of children in the bottom fifth of incomes who end up in the top fifth–are small, ranging from 4 percent in Atlanta to 11 percent in San Jose. Moreover, what differences there are appear to be unrelated to sprawl: Chicago, a fairly dense area, is almost as low as Atlanta, while Pittsburgh, a fairly low-density area, is almost as high as San Jose.

The study lists a lot of factors that seem to correlate with low economic mobility, but none of them are related to population density or sprawl. The most important factors appear to be tax rates, racial residential segregation, K-12 school quality, and the percentage of single-parent families. The South scores particularly high on racial residential segregation and low on K-12 schools, which together go much further toward explaining its relatively low economic mobility than urban sprawl.

Residential income segregation, which Krugman focuses on, is only one of several other factors mentioned by the study, and far from the most important one. Even if sprawl were one of the factors, the study itself notes that “all of the findings in this study are correlational and cannot be interpreted as causal effects.” By blaming low economic mobility on sprawl, Krugman is relying on fabricated evidence while ignoring the real problems.

As it happens, the Daily Beast has just published a report by Joel Kotkin and Wendell Cox on Aspirational Cities, which they describe as cities with economic growth and a high quality of life. The majority of cities on their list are in the South, where people are moving to take advantage of new economic opportunities.

It is sad that some local residents, who may be victims of historic racial segregation, poor schools, and one-parent families, aren’t able to take advantage of these opportunities. But these problems did not result from urban sprawl. On the other hand, the factors that Kotkin & Cox say provide a higher quality of life and economic growth–minimal land-use regulation, low traffic congestion, and high housing affordability–are in fact positively correlated with sprawl.

Why is Krugman suddenly pandering to the anti-sprawl community? Back in 2005, Krugman correctly identified anti-sprawl policies as the cause of the housing bubble. He must be aware of research showing that minority homeownership rates are higher in sprawling regions than compact ones (mainly because housing is more affordable in the former than the latter). All else being equal, including quality of schools and racial segregation, sprawling areas are likely to have more social mobility than more expensive, compact areas.