Posts tagged ‘commuting’

The Public Rail Spending Game

Kevin Drum has a very good, succinct description of how the rail (light rail, high speed rail, commuter rail) spending game works, in the context of California High Speed Rail (HSR)

As near as I can tell, the HSR authority's plan all along has been to simply ignore the law and spend the bond money on a few initial miles of track. Once that was done, no one would ever have the guts to halt the project because it would already have $9 billion sunk into it. So one way or another, the legislature would keep it on a funding drip.

It's a time-tested strategy, and it might have worked if not for a meddling judge.

Here is a great example of this from Chicago, where all they could afford at first was a single station.

I applaud Drum for opposing this boondoggle, but if he really understands this so well, I wonder why he seldom demonstrates any skepticism about other rail and mass transit projects.

Rail projects, particularly light rail projects that are being constructed or proposed in nearly every major city, are a classic example of a nominally Progressive policy that ends up hurting all the people Progressives want to help.

Bus-based mass transit is an intelligent way to help lower income people have more urban mobility.  Buses are relatively cheap and they are supremely flexible (ie they can switch routes easily).  Such urban bus systems, which like any government run function often have their problems and scandals, never-the-less can be reasonably held up as a Progressive victory.

But middle and upper class people, for whatever reason, don't like buses.  But they do like trains.  And so cities, under middle class pressure, have shifted their mass transit investment to trains.  The problem is that trains are horrendously expensive.    The first 20-mile leg of Phoenix light rail cost over $1.4 billion, which amounts to about $70,000 per daily round-trip rider.  Trains are also inflexible.  You can't shift routes and you can't sell them-- they have to follow fixed routes, which tend to match middle class commuting routes.

Because the trains are so expensive to operate, cities that adopt them quickly start cutting back on bus service to feed money to the rail beast.  As a result, even transit poster-boy cities like Portland have seen the ridership share of mass transit fall, for the simple reason that rail greatly increases the cost per rider and there is not an infinite amount of money available to transit.

 

City Planning, Light Rail and White People

I have argued for a long time that the shift of city transit departments from buses to a love affair with light rail has been a disaster.  Rail is so much more expensive per passenger mile, and so inflexible, that it generally forces a shrinkage in the total number of riders at the same time that budgets explode (example article here).

There are a lot of explanations for this phenomenon.  Part of it is incentives - heads of agencies with rail get paid more than bus-only agencies, and unions love the higher-paying rail jobs that never go away (part of the flexibility issues with rail).  Part of the explanation is cultural - rail is now hip and edgy and allegedly green and modern.  Buses are so last century.

And part of it is social/racial.  White upper middle class yuppies wouldn't be caught dead on buses.   They like trains better, particularly when they are successful in running rail routes through middle class commuting routes.  If the cost of this forces cut backs on buses that run where the poor need to go, oh well.

So, I ask you, what city in America is most famous as a model for urban planning and light rail?  Portland.  So it is interesting to see what effect this planning and transit strategy has had on the population.  I have already written here before that Portland bus service has been gutted in favor of rail, such that total ridership in the city has dropped despite spending a lot more transit dollars.  These maps from the Portland Oregonian show another effect -- shifting transit dollars to modes favored by rich white people has... caused Portland to be increasingly white.  What a surprise.  Via the anti-Planner

Phoenix Light Rail Fail

My column in Forbes is up for the week, and discusses the failure of light rail.  In particular, it focuses on Phoenix light rail, which has been hailed by the intelligentsia as a stirring success.  Which it is ... if you are willing to completely ignore its costs.  Saying that Phoenix light rail represents an example to be emulated is roughly equivalent to saying that an Aston Martin makes a sensible middle class family car.

One reason Phoenix is a particularly bad candidate for a light rail line is that our population is so dispersed, and there are not any obvious commuting routes.  Our downtown is a destination for very few, but even here the commutes, as shown on this distribution map, are from all over, hardly very good fodder for rail (the downtown is near the "phoenix" label).  More importantly, people work all over, so taking a suburban zip code, look at where people are commuting to from suburban 85032.   Again, all over.  Notice how few are going downtown (where the light rail line is -- downtown is toward the south about where the "phoenix" map label is).  In other words, people in Phoenix are driving from all over to all over.

Update: Now here is my idea of rail running in the streets, via Shorpy

The Leftish Mindset, In One Sentence

Cameron Scott meant this sentence as a withering critique of everything that is wrong with the government, from his point of view:

Transit riders shouldered four times the share of the MTA [Metropolitan Transit Authority] 2008 budget disaster [than] drivers did, but officials promised to seek more revenue from parking.

Holy cr*p!  You mean that transit users shouldered four times more of the transit budget than transit non-users?  Gasp!

The Bay Area where he lives is experiencing light rail disease.  This is the phenomenon where middle class voters along heavy white collar commuting routes push for horrendously expensive light rail lines.  The capital costs of these systems drain transit budgets into the distant future, forcing service cuts, particularly in bus systems that serve the poor.  The result is that the city ends up with bigger transit bills, but less actual transit, and progressives like Scott scratch their head and try to figure out what went wrong.  It must be because non-users of Transit aren't paying enough!

Light Rail Uses Twice the Energy as Driving

One of the justifications for diverting highway money to ridiculously expensive light rail systems is that light rail supposedly reduces energy consumption.  Really?  This is via the most recent report from the DOE's Transportation Energy Book, as highlighted by the Anti-Planner (click to enlarge):

light-rail-energy

The figures for cars are from tables 2.12 and 2.13 of the same report.  Even the best light rail systems are not substantially more efficient than cars, and this gap will likely continue to close, as it has for years, as cars get more efficient.

A Note on Freight: By the way, passenger rail promoters in the US always point to the Europeans as having a better rail system.  But while the Europeans put more of their passengers on rail than does the US, they put less of their freight there.  I would argue that the US system is much more "green", as the differences in energy use between a ton mile of freight on road vs. rail is much larger than the difference in energy use of a passenger mile on road vs. rail.  And besides, from a lifestyle standpoint, would you really want more freight on the roads?  (This is a real tradeoff -- unless one spends the absurd amount of money to build two separate systems, a rail network can be optimized for freight or passengers -- the two do not coexist very well on the same tracks).

Postscript: Just to head off the obvious rhetorical battles -- the incremental energy efficiency of moving one driver to a light rail rider of an existing system is very high.  The car consumption goes away and the train does not incrementally increase its energy use much with one more passenger.  So at the margin, it is correct when someone tells you that it saves energy to shift your commuting to an existing light rail line.  However, it does not make sense, from an energy perspective, to build a light rail line in the first place.  The investment is too high, the energy savings are negligible or non-existent, and the operating cost are so high that light rail tends to crowd out bus operations that help the poor.  As I have written before, for every light rail system I have checked, the cost to build the system is enough to buy every daily rider a Prius and the operating deficit enough to keep every one of these Prius's filled with gas.

Update:  I further understand that cars in the city likely have lower gas mileages than these averages, particularly for commutes that might be substituted by light rail.  But light rail is sold as if it is substantially more energy efficient, and it really would have to be orders of magnitude more efficient to justify the capital costs that are so much higher than for an equivalent capacity of roadway.  The efficiency is just not there.

My Commute: 1.9 Miles

I could drive a Caterpillar D6 to work and still use less fuel than most folks do in their commute.  That is because I choose to work less than 2 miles from my office, out here in the northern suburbs of Phoenix (and, when it is not 110 degrees out, there is a bike path that takes a more direct route that is even shorter).  There is no place I would choose to live anywhere near the central business district of Phoenix;  if my job was downtown, rather than in my suburban neighborhood, my commute would increase to sixty minutes per day rather than six.

So, I wonder why the movement of jobs from city centers to suburbs has the Brookings folks so upset.  If your remember, urban planning types lamented the move of homes to the suburbs, saying this increased commuting time and energy use.  Now that the jobs are moving out to the suburbs as well, close to where people actually live (rather than where the planners want them to live), this increases gas use and commute times as well?

Since 1998, almost every major American metro area has seen a drop in the share of employment located downtown as jobs have increasingly moved into farther-out suburbs, exacerbating "job sprawl" "“ a phenomenon that threatens to undermine the long-term prosperity of the nation's vital economic engines, according to a report released today by the Brookings Institution.
...
""˜People sprawl' has long been known for its effect on the environment, infrastructure, tax base, quality of life, and more. Now, we must recognize what "˜job sprawl' means for the economic health of the nation," stated Elizabeth Kneebone, author of the report and senior research analyst at the Metropolitan Policy Program.

"The location of jobs is also important to the larger discussion about growing the number of jobs," said Robert Puentes, a Brookings senior fellow. "Allowing jobs to shift away from city
centers hurts economic productivity, creates unsustainable and energy inefficient development, and limits access to underemployed workers."

The economic productivity argument has me totally flummoxed.  Are they really arguing that companies purposely reduce their own productivity and access to labor?  Why?  This makes no sense, and as the Anti-Planner points out, goes totally unproven in their study.

The only possible argument I can see is a government one, that somehow suburb infrastructure by being more spread out is more costly per person than urban infrastructure.  But this is a point that has never been well proven, and is a classic case of looking at just one variable in an multi-variate system.  Sure, I would guess the total miles of sewer pipe and roads per person is greater in the suburbs than the city.  But the cost of land acquisition, infrastructure construction, and maintenance are all lower.  It is not at all clear how these balance, and the authors do not even try to figure it out.  I would be surprised if the government infrastructure costs per person in, say, Scottsdale is really higher than in Manhattan.

In fact, if there is an issue here, it strikes me it is more a government pricing issue than a demographic issue.  If government is somehow taking a loss on suburban vs. urban infrastructure, then it needs to rethink its tax structure to appropriately set property taxes and fees to match actual costs.  But I think we all know that this is NOT the problem.  Where suburbs are separate cities from the inner cities, those cities tend to have lower taxes and healthier budgets than their inner city cousins, giving the lie to the statement that suburban infrastructure is somehow more expensive (or, as a minimum, that any increase in costs are more than offset by other cost advantages to government of the suburbs).

And all this ignores the individual rights issue of why government should be influencing the shape of people's living and commuting choices at all.  Note the very suggestive words in the Brookings press release -- "Allowing jobs to shift away from city centers hurts economic productivity," as if the location of my employees requires government approval.   It's amazing to me that the children of the sixties grew up to be such control freaks.

It's More Expensive, but Makes Up For It By Being Less Flexible

I have chastised our city on many occasions (more here) for spending enormous amounts of money on a new light rail / streetcar system for Phoenix.  These light rail systems can be twenty or more times as expensive, per mile or passenger carried, than a similar bus system.  But what really, really makes light rail nuts for Phoenix is the lack of flexibility.   Our hugely expensive new light rail system serves just one corridor, in a city that really does not even have a downtown.  Phoenix is characterized by a nearly infinite number of commuting routes that don't overlay nicely on a suburbs to city-center pattern as they might in, say, Chicago.  Further, the current route arguably follows the least congested route of any in the city!

The incremental cost of light rail over bus systems has been justified to us by our government overlords by economic development.  The argument goes that light rail creates more business development along their routes than a bus system.  Now, I am skeptical of this, given the region justified building a billion dollar stadium for the hapless Cardinals on the same justification (not to mention numerous subsidies of a couple of college bowl games that add little to an area that is going to get holiday tourists because of its climate whether there is a football game or not.

But what about Portland?  Supposedly Portland light rail is the go-by which all we unplanned cities should emulate.  But the Anti-Planner brings this helpful observation about Portland's experience with light rail and development:

Streetcar advocates often say that 7-mile-per-hour streetcars aren't about transportation, they are about economic development.
But they expect the Department of Transportation to pay for them out of
highway user fees. Why didn't they ask the Department of Housing and
Urban Development for the money?

Of course, the Antiplanner doesn't believe
that streetcars catalyze economic development. Instead, they merely
catalyze more tax subsidies for economic development. Portland spent
$90 million on a streetcar line and $665 million on subsidies to
development "” then credited the development to the streetcar line.
Yeah, right.

Moral Hazard

The Anti-Planner has a series of posts of late on light rail that in total point to a perverse moral hazard in public transportation funding that helps to explain why states and cities are building so many rail projects, when the numbers almost never make any sense (as I blogged for LA, Phoenix, and Albuquerque).  Though the Anti-Planner does not state these rules, from his recent posts I have inferred three rules:

  • A city can get capital construction dollars from the feds, but you can almost never get maintenance or operations money (similar story in recreation)
  • The feds will fund big, expensive, sexy rail projects.  They will not fund purchases of buses and are unlikely to fund something so prosaic as a bus stop or terminal  (general rule of thumb:  federally funded projects must be large enough to justify being named at some future point after the local Congressman or Senator who earmarked the project.)
  • It is very easy to de-fund bus systems -- you just don't replace aging buses and cut routes over time.  It is hard to de-fund, or, god forbid, abandon a rail line, since the thing sits out there so visibly.  Sunk costs can also be a political issue if rail lines were to be closed.

For most public transportation goals, particularly in spread out western and southern cities, buses are a cheaper and higher service solution than rail.  They can carry the same passenger traffic for far less total dollars (capital plus operating costs) and they can cover far more routes.  In fact, one can argue that rail lines are inherently regressive, as they tend to serve commuting corridors of the middle and upper classes rather than the typical routes of the poor, for whom the systems are nominally built.

So what can one expect by the application of these three rules?  Well, we would expect local authorities to favor large, expensive capital rail projects rather than refurbishment or expansion of bus systems.  As operating costs rise for the trains, we would expect bus service to be cut back to pay for the rail operating deficit.

Stlouis
Which is exactly what happens.  In fact, rail tends not to increase total ridership at all, at best shifting ridership from inexpensive buses to expensive trains, and at worst decreasing total ridership as rail lines with just  a few stations and routes replace more extensive webs of bus transport.  And, in twenty years, when these rails systems need extensive capital overhauls, we find cities with huge albatrosses on their hands that they are unable to maintain or update.

More Light Rail Suckage

Portland is the poster child for light rail "success," but this is an interesting definition of success:

"Many (Portlanders) use their public transportation system," says
Weyrich. In fact, 9.8 percent of Portland-area commuters took transit
to work before the region build light rail. Today it is just 7.6
percent. In a story repeated in numerous cities that have built rail
lines, rail cost overruns forced the city to raise bus fares and reduce
bus service. That's a success?

A lot more money for fewer total transit riders.  This is absolutely predictable.  Light rail creates huge investment along one single route.  The assets created are totally inflexible -- unlike buses, they can only run one single route.  For most western cities with low density and literally hundreds of different commuting routes this way and that, light rail is silly.  Here are a couple of analysis I did for Albuquerque, LA and Phoenix.  Here is more about Portland.