2014 Transit Data

In mid-December, the Federal Transit Administration posted 2014 transit data on line, then withdrew it–but not before the Antiplanner was able to download most of the data tables. Two tables that were not available then were “Service” (including such things as vehicle revenue miles, passenger miles, and average daily trips) and “Vehicle Inventory” (including the number of vehicles and number of seats and standing room per vehicle).

The FTA has reposted all of the tables, including the two tables that were previously missing. Those two tables are dated today, so I appear to have downloaded them almost as soon as they were posted. Most of the other tables date to mid-December, so it is likely that few changes or corrections were made since then.

I’ve added the new data to my master spreadsheet and posted it for your convenience. This takes the information I consider the most important, including costs, ridership, fares, and energy consumption, from eight different spreadsheets and puts them in one spreadsheet.

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Are Oil Prices Too Low?

Remember peak oil? Remember when oil prices were $140 a barrel and Goldman Sachs predicted they would soon reach $200? Now, the latest news is that oil prices have gone up all the way to $34 a barrel. Last fall, Goldman Sachs predicted prices would fall to $20 a barrel, which other analysts argued was “no better than its prior predictions,” but in fact they came a lot closer to that than to $200.

Low oil prices generate huge economic benefits. Low prices mean increased mobility, which means increased economic productivity. The end result, says Bank of America analyst Francisco Blanch, is “one of the largest transfers of wealth in human history” as $3 trillion remain in consumers’ pockets rather than going to the oil companies. The Antiplanner wouldn’t call this a “wealth transfer” so much as a reduction in income inequality, but either way, it is a good thing.

Naturally, some people hate the idea of increased mobility from lower fuel prices. “Cheap gas raises fears of urban sprawl,” warns NPR. Since “urban sprawl” is a made-up problem, I’d have to rewrite this as, “Cheap gas raises hopes of urban sprawl.” The only real “fear” is on the part of city officials who want everyone to pay taxes to them so they can build stadiums, light-rail lines, and other useless urban monuments.

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$44 Per Ride Subsidy

Last week, the Antiplanner commented on a proposed passenger train between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. Yesterday, The Advocate, a New Orleans weekly, published an op-ed on the same train.

The article calculates that the subsidy per ticket will average $44. Considering that the proposed fare is only $10 for the first few years, rising to $13 after ten years, this would be a horrendous subsidy, at least compared with other intercity trains. Subsidies to the average Amtrak train are about equal to the ticket price, not three to four times the ticket price. On the other hand, subsidies to urban transit average $3 for every dollar paid in fares.

In comments on the op-ed, one of the defenders of the proposed train says, “in the 1930s in the middle of a Depression we built a network of airports that served as foundation for a commercial airline industry we see today.” The two clear differences are that most airports pay for themselves with landing fees, and the airline industry in the 1930s was rapidly evolving and growing. By comparison, the technology for the proposed train hasn’t changed since the 1930s, and passenger train ridership is declining. It is a continual source of amazement that so many Americans consider subsidies to an obsolete forms of travel such as streetcars, light rail, and intercity rail to be normal and acceptable.

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Happy Birthday, Gabriel Roth

Gabriel Roth, who turns 90 years young today, is a rock star among transportation economists, and a special inspiration for those of us who support reducing the federal government’s role in transportation. According to his C.V., Roth earned degrees in engineering from London’s Imperial College in 1948 and economics from Cambridge in 1954.

In 1959, he began research into improved road pricing systems. This led to his appointment to a Ministry of Transport commission that published a 1964 report advocating pricing congested roads in order to end that congestion.

In 1966, the Institute for Economic Affairs published his paper, A Self-Financing Road System, which argued that user fees should pay for all roads, and not just be used to relieve congestion. Roads should be expanded, Roth noted, wherever user fees exceeded the cost of providing a particular road, but not elsewhere.

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A Train for Eau Claire

Eau Claire, Wisconsin–whose urban area barely has more than 100,000 people–is located on Interstate 94. United Airlines offers residents two daily flights to Chicago. Greyhound has buses to Chicago and Minneapolis, while Jefferson Lines has buses to Green Bay and Minneapolis.

But that’s not enough for members of the West Central Wisconsin Rail Coalition, who want train service from Eau Claire to Minneapolis and Chicago. Why? Because millennials don’t want to drive; everybody wants to take the train; only cities with trains will grow in the future; blah, blah, blah.

People who believe this line of drivel probably don’t want to know the real data. In FY 2015, Amtrak carried 6.60 billion passenger miles, down from 6.65 billion in 2014. Meanwhile, in the 12 months ending in November, 2015, Americans drove 3.14 trillion vehicle miles, up 3.6 percent from the previous 12 months.

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If We Spend Less, We Can Have More

Over at Greater Greater Washington, urban analyst John Ricco has had a mind-shattering revelation: if we spent less on transit, we could have more transit. He notes that the United States spends far more on transit projects than other countries, though he adds that, “No one’s really sure why.”

Actually, his revelation isn’t quite as mind-shattering as I presented it. Instead, what he realized is, “If we lowered transit construction costs, we could build more transit.” Apparently, he is one of those people who thinks transit is only transit if it is built.

The Antiplanner would go further and say, “if we stopped wasting money building transit, we could have more transit.” While Ricco is correct that transit construction costs are bloated, even the least-expensive rail transit is going to be more expensive than running buses on roads and streets shared with other vehicles. We’re spending $100 million or more per mile building light rail, but even if it cost only $10 million per mile, buying and running buses would still cost far less.

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Are We Approaching Peak Transit?

“Billions spent, but fewer people are using public transportation,” declares the Los Angeles Times. The headline might have been more accurate if it read, “Billions spent, so therefore fewer are using public transit,” as the billions were spent on the wrong things.

The L.A. Times article focuses on Los Angeles’ Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro), though the same story could be written for many other cities. In Los Angeles, ridership peaked in 1985, fell to 1995, then grew again, and now is falling again. Unmentioned in the story, 1985 is just before Los Angeles transit shifted emphasis from providing low-cost bus service to building expensive rail lines, while 1995 is just before an NAACP lawsuit led to a court order to restore bus service lost since 1985 for ten years.

The situation is actually worse than the numbers shown in the article, which are “unlinked trips.” If you take a bus, then transfer to another bus or train, you’ve taken two unlinked trips. Before building rail, more people could get to their destinations in one bus trip; after building rail, many bus lines were rerouted to funnel people to the rail lines. According to California transit expert Tom Rubin, survey data indicate that there were an average of 1.66 unlinked trips per trip in 1985, while today the average is closer to 2.20. That means today’s unlinked trip numbers must be reduced by nearly 25 percent to fairly compare them with 1985 numbers.

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Building a Self-Driving Car in Your Garage

You can build a self-driving car in your garage–if you are a computer genius. George Hotz, a 26-year-old computer whiz who was the first person to unlock the iPhone when he was just 17 and later reverse engineered a PlayStation, has built a self-driving car. Though it has cost him about $50,000, most of which went for the car itself, his real goal is to design a hardware/software system that will turn any recent car into a self-driving car for very little money.

As described in the video above, rather than write a computer program with a zillion rules for driving, his method has been to teach his car how to drive by using other drivers as examples. Most self-driving cars use millions of lines of code; his uses just 2,000.

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How Do You Define “Feasible”?

States and regions all over the country are developing plans for high-speed or conventional-speed intercity passenger trains. One of the first steps in writing such plans is the “feasibility study.” But the people writing these studies have a curious definition of “feasible.”


Click image to download this business plan. Click here to download technical memoranda behind the plan.

Louisiana Governor John Edwards doesn’t even understand the definition of “light rail.” He asked Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx yesterday for federal funding for light rail between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. Or maybe he asked for money for commuter rail; it’s hard to know from the media reports. But Edwards is on the record saying he will do everything he can “to make sure that as soon as possible we can pursue light rail” between the two cities, which are about 80 miles apart on Interstate 10.

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Washington Metro Surrenders

New York City was harder hit by snowstorm Jonas than Washington, getting 27 inches of snow compared with 18 or 19 inches in Washington. Yet New York’s subways kept running and commuter trains and buses operated for as long as they could, while Washington Metro shut down its system before the storm got serious.


This is what it takes to shut down Metro subways. Flickr photo taken Sunday morning after the storm by Ted Eyten.

Sunday morning, New York sprang back to life while Washington remained shut down. By this morning, the vast majority of the New York system, including most commuter-rail lines, almost the entire subway system, and some buses will be operating. Washington, meanwhile, will operate the subway portions of its rail lines and just 22 out of 325 bus lines.

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