Transportation Energy Costs

The average car on the road consumed 4,700 British thermal units (BTUs) per vehicle mile in 2015, which is almost a 50 percent reduction from 1973, when Americans drove some of the gas-guzzliest cars in history. The average light truck (meaning pick ups, full-sized vans, and SUVs) used about 6,250 BTUs per vehicle mile in 2015, which is also about half what it was in the early 1970s.

Click on the above image to download a 10.2-MB PDF of the above report. Use links below to download spreadsheets or individual chapters from the report.

By comparison, the average transit bus used 15 percent more BTUs per vehicle mile in 2015 than transit buses did in 1970. Since bus occupancies have declined, BTUs per passenger mile have risen by 63 percent since 1970. While buses once used only about half as much energy per passenger mile as cars, they now use about a third more. Continue reading

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November 2017 Ridership Falls 1.9 Percent

Nationwide transit ridership in November 2017 was 1.9 percent lower than the same month in 2016, while ridership for the first eleven months of 2017 was 2.5 percent lower than the same period in 2016. If similar numbers are posted for December, then total annual ridership will have fallen below 10 billion trips for the first time since 2010.

These numbers are from the Federal Transit Administration’s November update to its National Transit Database. The update includes passenger trips, vehicle revenue miles, and vehicle revenue hours by month from January 2002 through November 2017, broken down by transit agency and mode. These numbers may be preliminary and might change slightly in later updates. These numbers are also for calendar years so will differ from the final 2017 report, which is based on each agency’s fiscal year. Continue reading

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U.S. Infrastructure: Not about to Collapse

A recent report from the RAND Corporation looks at America’s infrastructure and concludes that “not everything is broken.” In face, what is broken, more than the infrastructure itself, is “our approach to funding and financing public works.” This is largely because governments by-pass market signals and rely on “often complicated and multilayered governance arrangements and competing public goals and preferences” to make decisions about where to spend money.

For example, the report shows that government spending on infrastructure as a percentage of gross domestic product declined from a peak of 3 percent of GDP in 1960 to about 2.5 percent in 1980, and has hovered between 2.5 and 2.7 percent since then. But governments also made a clear trade-off in infrastructure spending: spending on roads declined from 1.6 percent of GPD in 1960 to around 1 percent in and since 1980, while government spending on mass transit grew from 0.1 percent in 1970 to 0.4 percent in and since 1980.

This would be fine if spending on mass transit had been as productive as spending on highways had been. But it wasn’t. Until the 2008 financial crisis, per capita driving continued to grow despite the lack of much capital spending on new roads, while per capita transit ridership was stagnant or declining. The report doesn’t have data after 2014, when per capita driving began to increase again while transit ridership began to collapse. Continue reading

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Metro’s Unsurprising Derailment

Washington Metro officials pretended to be shocked when a Red Line train derailed due to a broken rail on Monday. In fact, the break should not and probably didn’t surprise any of them.

“It’s like, God, didn’t we do all of the fixing, the bad areas, SafeTrack?” rambled Metro’s board chair, Jack Evans. “All that stuff was intended to prevent stuff like this from happening.” Actually, Evans knows perfectly well that the SafeTrack work was superficial and the system still needs $15 billion to $25 billion of maintenance and rehabilitation work.

“This rail was manufactured in 1993, which may sound old but actually rail can last 40, 50 years,” said Metro general manager Paul Wiedefeld, “so it’s not particularly old in the railroad business.” Actually, it is. Continue reading

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Is Transit the Only Answer? Is It Even an Answer?

“Forget self-driving cars,” argues Rod Diridon, the former chair of one of the worst-managed transit agencies in the country. “Mass transit is the only answer to gridlock.” Writing in the San Jose Mercury-News, Diridon presents what he considers to be alarming statistics about job growth and then asserts that only huge subsidies to transit will allow those people to get to work.

“Well over 100,000 new primary jobs will be added to Silicon Valley in the next decade,” he estimates, and each primary job will be supported by seven to thirteen secondary jobs. Since Silicon Valley (which I equate to the San Jose urbanized area) only had 873,000 jobs in 2016, he is essentially predicting that jobs (and therefore population) will more than double in a decade. Considering that the region’s population has only been growing at about 1 percent per year, that’s impossible.

At no matter what rate the region is growing, transit–or at least the Santa Clara Valley Transit Authority (VTA) that Diridon once led–has proven itself incapable of dealing with this growth. Back in 2000, VTA carried 55.6 million transit riders. By 2016, the region’s population had grown 16 percent, yet ridership was down to 44.0 million. In the first ten months of 2017, ridership fell another 8.5 percent below the same period in 2016. As a result, annual transit trips per capita have fallen by more than a third since 2000. Continue reading

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Brightline Opens to Tragedy

Brightline passenger trains began operating between Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach on Saturday, just one day after a VIP preview run killed a pedestrian. This was an inauspicious beginning for what is supposed to be the first new private intercity rail service in the United States in at least four decades.

The first test run of Brightline equipment took place nearly a year ago on January 18, 2017. Flickr photo by BBT609.

The fatality took place when a woman walked around the crossing gates that had lowered in advance of the train. Hers was the third death resulting from the trains before they collected a single revenue fare. One of them was ruled a suicide, but even it might have been prevented if Brightline had fenced its right of way. Brightline says it has implemented positive train control, but positive train control cannot prevent pedestrian or grade-crossing accidents. Continue reading

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A Post-Racial Era?

Five years ago, on the fiftieth anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech, the Antiplanner noted that blacks had made a lot of political progress since then, but hadn’t made much economic progress. For example, black per capita incomes as a percent of white incomes had grown from 55 percent in 1963 to 58 percent in 2011, the last year for which data were available at the time I was writing. (According to tables B19301B and B19301H of the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, the actual percentage in 2011 was 56 percent.)

There have been some improvements in the last five years, but they are small. Black per capita incomes in 2016 — the last year for which numbers are available now and five years after the 2011 data I cited in 2013 — are 2 percent greater, as a share of of non-Hispanic white incomes (58 percent in 2016), than they were in 2011. According to tables B19013B and B19013H, black household incomes have grown from 60 percent to 61 percent of non-Hispanic white incomes. (The ratio is a little higher because black households have more people.)

Black wealth took a big hit in the Great Recession. Unlike incomes, this doesn’t appear to have improved since 2011. Continue reading

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Expressing Opposition After It Is Too Late

Perhaps encouraged by the Trump administration’s opposition to wasteful transit projects, it has now become popular for politicians to come out in opposition to those projects when it is clear they are boondoggles. Some of them, however, are expressing their opposition only after it is too late to stop the projects.

For example, Broward County wants to build an inane streetcar line in downtown Fort Lauderdale. Someone twisted Secretary of Transportation Chao’s arm to actually provide federal funding for the project. But when bids were opened to build it, they came in much higher than projected.

Now, all three candidates to be the next mayor of Fort Lauderdale say they oppose the streetcar. But the decision to build is in the hands of the county commission, not the city council, and the county is going to have another bid process. So it is safe for the mayor and council candidates to oppose something they can’t actually stop. Continue reading

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Bill Would Eliminate San Francisco Zoning

California state senator Scott Wiener, who represents San Francisco, has introduced Senate Bill 827, which would effectively void all local zoning rules in “transit-rich” areas, meaning areas within a half mile of a rail station or a quarter mile of a stop on a frequent bus route. Wiener’s goal is to allow the construction of high-density housing in those transit-rich areas, thus simultaneously providing more affordable housing and encouraging more people to ride transit.

This bill would severely disrupt neighborhoods throughout San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley, and many other cities that currently have frequent transit service, as maps reveal that it would virtually eliminate zoning in most of the land area of those cities. While some people consider zoning to be an unfair (and possibly unconstitutional) restriction of property rights, most people who live in zoned urban neighborhoods appreciate the benefits of such zoning. By limiting the maximum density of housing, zoning minimizes traffic congestion, noise, and other problems.

Moreover, neighborhoods are built with streets, water, sewer, and other infrastructure to serve the needs of the density at which the neighborhoods were built. Major increases in density would require expensive improvements to water and sewer infrastructure–far more expensive than building new infrastructure on greenfields–and streets probably could not be redesigned to accommodate the density increases in any case. Continue reading

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Transit Commutes Twice as Long as Driving

Americans spent an average of 25.2 minutes to get to work in 2016, according to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. Average travel times are calculated by dividing aggregate travel times in table B08136 by the number of commuters in table B08301, and both tables break the data down by driving alone, carpooling, transit, and walking. Other modes, such as taxi, motorcycles, and bicycles, are lumped together, which isn’t very useful as there is no reason to think that the would take about the same amount of time.

People who commuted by transit took nearly twice as long as people who drove, spending an average of 50.1 minutes vs. 25.4 minutes for people driving alone. People who walked took just 12.3 minutes, suggesting that people who walk live well under a mile away from their work. Carpooling added about 2.6 minutes to the times required to drive alone.

One reason transit takes so long is because it is slow. According to the American Public Transportation Association’s 2016 Transit Fact Book, transit speeds average just 15.3 mph. Driving in most American cities is twice that fast. Continue reading

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