The Wrong Measures

Late last week, with great fanfare, the Brookings Institution released a new report on “Transit and Jobs in America.” Too many people, the report found, live too far away from a transit stop, so it urged more investments in transit so that more people can use it.

Data in the report itself discredited this logic. As noted on page 21, the metro areas with the highest “combined ranking of access to transit and employment” are:

1. Honolulu
2. San Jose
3. Salt Lake City
4. Tucson
5. Fresno
6. Denver
7. Albuquerque
8. Las Vegas
9. Provo-Orem
10. Modesto

The trouble is, with the exception of Honolulu, none of these areas have particularly high rates of transit ridership by any measure. The table below compares most of these urban areas with a few areas with notably high transit usage. (Salt Lake and Provo are combined because one transit agency serves both areas.)

Urban Area Transit Usage

Urban AreaTransit SharePer Capita Transit TripsBrookings Rank
New York10.4%21913
Los Angeles1.8%5224
Chicago3.7%7246
San Francisco5.8%13516
Denver1.8%496
San Jose1.1%292
Las Vegas1.2%448
Salt Lake/Provo2.0%31
3
Tucson0.6%244
Honolulu4.0%971
Albuquerque0.4%167
Fresno0.5%286
Modesto0.4%1210
Transit's share of motorized travel and per capita transit ridership for selected urbanized areas.
.

There isn’t much correlation between Brookings’ rankings and actual transit performance. This suggests that Brookings put a lot of effort into a study whose results are meaningless except to show that any policies based on Brookings’ rankings will fail to attract many new transit riders.

The Antiplanner’s faithful ally, Tom Rubin, noticed this right away. Rubin rates San Jose’s transit system the worst in the nation. When informed that Brookings ranked San Jose the second-best in the country, Rubin asked, “How many did they rank? Two?

“This isn’t about how well the system performs, but what they are capable of,” explains one of the Brookings authors. Before Brookings publishes another report like this one, it should focus on actual performance and ask why some urban areas, such as Honolulu and San Francisco, perform better than others. Then, perhaps, its recommendations might actually be useful.

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20 thoughts on “The Wrong Measures

  1. Andrew

    I agree with your suggestions.

    Brookings seemed to be ranking based on whether a person at any one point can access a multitude of jobs at many other points. But the more relevant question is whether a person at any one point can access jobs in their general area to which they would actually be attracted, because most people don’t want a commute that stretches much over 40 minutes, and if their commute does become much longer, they will move.

    It would also be interesting to see, especially in larger and more congested areas, how many jobs are accessible by auto in a certain amount of time. Obviously someone living in Stamford, CT isn’t going to be able to get to Red Bank, NJ very easily by car or train. Is it really relevant to them that jobs even exist in that part of their metro area?

    It is also noticable that as commute time increases, mode share for transit increases, so that when we consider commutes of one hour or more, where transit is available in a corridor it has the lions share of the market, because few people want to spend 2-4 hours driving every day, but many people will ride a train or bus that far where they can work, sleep, relax, or chat and also access a job paying an inordinate amount of money compared to what is available in their immediate area, as happens when accessing major cities like New York, Chicago, Boston, or San Francisco.

  2. Dan

    Perhaps a related question might be: since VMT seems to have peaked, are people just not driving (InterWebs shopping) and/or is there a demand for alternative modes of freedom?

    DS

  3. Andrew

    Dan:

    Oil consumption in the US is currently at 1999 levels and falling. Peak consumption occurred in early to mid 2007 depending on the timeframe examined (13 week average or 52 week average), while the single heaviest week of consumption was in December of 2005.

    As the writer of the Peak Oil Debunked blog pointed out in several posts, the advanced western economies have been experiencing peak demand/consumption at a variety of dates over the past 15 years without any noticably significant effect on them. People and political economies have moved on by changing their habits while still getting richer, just like we managed to pass by “Peak Wood” and “Peak Anthricite” in the US.

    http://peakoildebunked.blogspot.com/

    We are certainly a wealthier country now than we were in 1999, which means that we are sensibly responding to the market signals of high oil prices by becoming more efficient with the use of what we feel we can afford to buy.

  4. Frank

    “We are certainly a wealthier country now than we were in 1999…”

    Right.

    2000 national debt: $5.7T
    2011 national debt: $14.3T

    2000 personal debt: $8T
    2011 personal debt: $16.1T

    2000 food stamp recipients: 17.8M
    2011 food stamp recipients: 43.9M

    Value of 2011 dollar in terms of 2000 dollar: $.80

    If you consider debt wealth and an eroded dollar “wealth”, then I totally agree with your statement.

  5. bennett

    Andrew,

    I have to echo some of what Frank is saying. How are you defining “wealthier?”

    Also, I’m a little confused about the “peak wood” and “peak anthracite” analogy. Wood is renewable. Anthracite is a type of coal. We have yet to reach “peak coal” and as fast as timber can regenerate I’m failing to see how these two resources are reasonably comparable to oil. Not that I saying that society will not overcome “peak oil” but in the context of a modern economy wood and oil, are not apples and oranges, it’s apples and moon cheese.

  6. Andrew

    bennett:

    Once the eastern and midwestern forests were clear cut, we had reached “Peak Wood” in the US – look at a picture of rural areas in the 1920’s – barely a forest to be seen. The same thing happened in many other parts of the world which are no longer forested. Its not as though there is no more wood, but simply that consumption of a resource prompted humanity to move on to a new and better form of energy.

    “Peak Anthricite” occurred well over 50 years ago when we transitioned from coal to oil for heating. We will never again mine 100+ million tons of anthricite per year.

    “Peak Oil” will almost certainly happen in the same way and we will be better off for it in the end, just like we are better off not having to throw a log on the fire or a cup full of coal.

  7. Andrew

    Frank:

    The fixed investment of the country in built assets is far higher now than in 1999. That plus the value of American land and our ever expanding natural resource bounty repesents our national wealth. Food stamps and debt and the like is merely a question of who owns the wealth and derives income from it. Of course too, comparing your feeling of wealth in 1999-2000 at the peak of a stock market boom to your feelings in 2001 at the pits of a real estate crash leads to personal doubt of this fact.

    I also think your worry about debt is totally misplaced. Debt is rising roughly at the same rate as fixed assets. Personal debt was about 1/3 of fixed assets in 1999, and is about 1/3 today too. I think most people do not have a true perspective of the vast fixed wealth of America.

  8. Frank

    How can we be wealthier in terms of land? Land is fixed. We have the same amount of land in 2011 as we did in 1999. The nominal value of land may have increased, but that is largely due to the erosion of the dollar and speculation. Consider, too, who owns the land? Much of it is owned by the federal government. The federal government is teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. A great deal of privately owned land is technically owned by banks.

    Consuming (particularly through debt) without saving is phony wealth.

    And WTF is “ever expanding natural resource bounty”? The evidence supports resource depletion, and there is no evidence of “expanding natural resource[s]”.

  9. Andrew

    Frank:

    I didn’t mean to imply wealth in land is expanding. I said the value of fixed assets is far higher, and should be added to the value in land.

    The value of natural resources expands due to new discoveries and new extraction techniques. The $5 trillion+ in natrual gas resources in the Marcellus Shale were not even known in 1999. The same holds for the mineral wealth of the Bakken Shale. We have had 50 years of oil left to extract for 40 years now because new discoveries and expansion of previous recovery estimates through new recovery techniques have grown faster than extraction. The amount of trees has of course grown, while minerals are only extracted and transformed by refining into higher value products, not consumed. We are only truly consuming and destroying fossil fuels, and as I mentioned, we keep finding tremendous new stores of energy wealth in them.

    Since the Federal Government can print money, it is impossible for it to go bankrupt. At any point it (really we) choose, it can exchange the little bits of paper with green ink promising a 30 year interest payment at 5% for other little bits of paper with green ink saying they have a value of $X and are legal tender. No money is created or destroyed by this process since both bond securities and paper cash are forms of money, only the liability for interest is changed. I’m quite sure the folks in NYC running the bond market would not be happy with that move, but they aren’t our government. The Federal Government has no other significant contractual legal obligations besides minor pension debts to its retired employees.

  10. Frank

    Gotcha on the value of energy stored in the land. Gotta disagree that minerals are not consumed, particularly metals; 70% of metal is used once and then thrown away. (I suppose one could argue those are not consumed because land fills could one day be mined, but in an economic sense, they are indeed consumed.)

    “Since the Federal Government can print money, it is impossible for it to go bankrupt. At any point it (really we) choose, it can exchange the little bits of paper with green ink promising a 30 year interest payment at 5% for other little bits of paper with green ink saying they have a value of $X and are legal tender.”

    First, you’ve oversimplified the situation. The Federal Reserve, not the government, prints currency, but I won’t split hairs with you as this bank cartel is only quasi-private. It is an important distinction, however, especially since you say that “we” can really choose to print when the Federal Reserve, which is quasi-constitutional at best, is cloaked in secrecy, operates largely outside of the system, and answers to few, not even the chair of the Congressional committee charged to oversee it. (Secondly, Federal Reserve notes are money substitutes, but I too often use the phrase “print money”.)

    But technically, you’re right. The Fed can continue to monetize the debt. But for how long? How long will the government’s foreign creditors accept devalued currency as payment? What happens when our government’s credit rating slips further?

    If printing bank notes continues unchecked, it increases the risk of a currency crisis and hyperinflation of the likes seen in Zimbabwe, Weimar, Rome, Hungary, the Song Dynasty, etc., etc., etc.

    Speaking of “minor” pension debts, federal pensions are the sixth largest item in the budget, practically tied for fifth with the net interest on the debt.

  11. Dan

    @12: this argumentation in toto is narrowly true and only up to a point. Specifically:

    The amount of trees has of course grown, depends upon spatial and temporal scales. Overall across the planet since the dawn of agriculture the amount of trees has of course fallen dramatically. Only because so many farms in the NE USA were abandoned and are now reforesting does the italicized makes sense (on a limited scale).

    while minerals are only extracted and transformed by refining into higher value products, not consumed. And most minerals are used once and discarded. Most ecological economic models depend upon ceasing this wasteful practice and ‘closing the loop’ to recapture most minerals to avoid the destructive current model.

    DS

  12. Andrew

    Frank:

    Actually, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing prints currency for the Fed. But there are other options. 31 USC 5115 authorizes the issuance of US Notes by the Treasury Department. 31 USC 5117(b) authorizes the Treasury to issue gold certificates against its gold holdings. 31 USC 5111(b) authorizes purchase of gold and silver ore from the metals account of the Mint and its minting into coins. 12 USC 411 requires the Treasury and Federal Reserve to redeem Federal Reserve Notes for “lawful money”, which would obviously not be Federal Reserve Notes.

    Federal Reserve Notes themselves, as authorized under 12 USC 411 are obligations of the US. The entire paragraph of the Code is very interesting: “Federal reserve notes, to be issued at the discretion of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System for the purpose of making advances to Federal reserve banks through the Federal reserve agents as hereinafter set forth and for no other purpose, are authorized. The said notes shall be obligations of the United States and shall be receivable by all national and member banks and Federal reserve banks and for all taxes, customs, and other public dues. They shall be redeemed in lawful money on demand at the Treasury Department of the United States, in the city of Washington, District of Columbia, or at any Federal Reserve bank.”

    Its also interesting to note that 31 USC 5112 defines $50 = 1 ounce gold, which is about 1/30th of the market price in Federal Reserve Note Dollars. It also defines a half dollar as weighing 11.34 grams and requires that 9/10’s silver proof sets of these coins be minted. If you go through the math, that would define a dollar as 315 grains of silver, which is 0.656 of an ounces of silver, which implies 45 Federal Reserve Note Dollars per ounce of silver.

    If the law were changed to allow more US Currency Notes to be issued, several trillion of these could be printed up and used to exchange all the Federal Reserve Notes and US Treasury Debt certificates in circulation. The net effect would not create any money and so could not be inflationary. Inflation would occur if additional notes were printed and used by the Treasury to pay current expenses of the government.

    Pension debts are minor in relation to current revenue. A few hundred billion vs. a couple of trillion.

  13. Frank

    Interesting reading, but on August 15, 1971, the “gold window” was closed with the end of Bretton Woods. The US Codes you list treat gold coins as numismatic, but it’s interesting that they are legal tender. I wonder if this is some kind of a backup to our fiat system, and that if push comes to shove, we’d raid Fort Knox and crank out gold coins.

    I’d argue that technically FRNs are unconstitutional since states were prohibited from making “any Thing but gold and silver Coin a Tender in Payment of Debts”. If the Constitution does not grant power to the federal government do do a thing, those powers are granted to the states under the Tenth Amendment; this is why the constitution prohibited states from using anything but gold and silver; it closed the loophole granted under the 10th.

    True that pension debts are smaller than current revenue, but if we face an currency crisis, like the crisis in former Soviet satellites, like Bulgaria, you’ll find a lot of unhappy and destitute pensioners.

    Interesting discussion. Thank you.

  14. Andrew

    Frank:

    I would tend to agree about the Federal Reserve System as far as its issuance of unbacked Notes goes, but not necessarily for the reason you suggest. Juiliard vs. Greenman (110 US 421) settled the issue of the use of bills of credit as currency and legel tender, but that was with respect to US Currency Notes, not Federal Reserve Notes. McCulloch vs. Maryland (17 US 316) settled the issue of the constitutionality of chartering a national bank based on the taxing and spending clause, including the power of the bank to emit banknotes. The problem with Federal Reserve Notes is that in practice, they cannot be exchanged for legal tender amounts of gold and silver at the Treasury as required under the lawful money clause above.

    Thank you also.

  15. Frank

    Thanks for schooling me.

    Here’s a whacky news story I just read that touches on some points I made.

    Lawmakers mull selling land, gold to pay off government debt

    Should Congress fail to raise the nation’s $14.3 trillion debt cap by Aug. 2, some conservatives (in and out of Congress) are suggesting selling off the nation’s assets. For starters, they say, the U.S. has plenty of land — and plenty of gold.

    Ron Utt, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, recently suggested to the Washington Post that U.S. could sell off its gold reserves from Fort Knox in order to pay down debt.

    “It’s just sort of sitting there,” he said. “Given the high price [gold] is now, and the tremendous debt problem we now have, by all means, sell at the peak.”

    When asked about that idea, Republican Rep. Ron Paul of Texas — known for his support of the gold standard and his interest in auditing the nation’s gold reserves — endorsed it.

    Selling the nation’s gold reserves would be “a good and moral decision,” the congressman and GOP presidential candidate told the New York Sun. “An individual would have to do the same.”

    The Obama administration estimates the nation’s gold reserves are worth about $370 billion, according to the Post.

    AND

    Selling Gold at Fort Knox Emerges as Next Big Question in Debate on Federal Debt Limit

    An unnamed senior administration official was quoted by the Washington Post as saying, “Selling off the gold is just one level of crazy away from selling Mount Rushmore.”

    In August 2010, a leading figure in the monetary debate in Congress, Ron Paul, a Republican of Texas, called for an audit of the federal government’s gold reserves. “If there was no question, you’d think they would be very anxious to prove to us that the gold is there. . . . ,” Dr. Paul then said, “In the early 1980s when I was on the gold commission, I asked them to recommend to the Congress that they audit the gold reserves – we had 17 members of the commission and 15 voted not to the audit. I think there was only one decent audit done 50 years ago.”

    First, if Republicans take over all three branches and the nation’s financial situation deteriorates, look for them to sell off public lands, including national parks, to the highest bidder. I’d rather have the crown jewels entrusted to conservation trusts than go to the likes of Disney, Exxon, et al.

    Secondly, why won’t the government conduct an audit of the nation’s gold reserves? What are they afraid of?

    Finally, about Mt. Rushmore. It’s a tacky road-side tourist trap. Sell it. Better yet, give it back to the Sioux, to whom it rightfully belongs. They can blast the faces right off it. Or put in a Skywalk and charge an arm and a leg to explore Washington’s nostril.

  16. Sandy Teal

    Yep, Mt. Rushmore is a tourist trap. It is a sad National Park memorializing the 1930s. The Badlands are much more interesting.

    Despite what my professors teach, I can’t help but think that under The Sioux Nation law, which gave sovereignty of land to whoever killed off the prior sovereign, the white people are the owners of Mt Rushmore. Clearly The Sioux obtained ownership/sovereignty over the land because the killed off or violently conquered the prior owners, who did likewise to the prior owners, who did likewise to the prior owners, and so on….

    Now under modern white people law, violence might not be the law. So that is sort of a riddle wrapped in a paradox — each sovereign’s law might be giving ownership to the other sovereign.

  17. prk166

    True to a point. It’s a funny thing. They did push the Blackfeet back to the northern Rockies, the Ojibwe back up to northern Minnesota, etc, etc. The problem with that is there wasn’t really a Sioux nation. Not in the pure modern term of nation. Some say it was the Nakota, Lakota and Dakota. A more accurate description is the, IIRc, 7 – 10 nations that made up the council. The council was in some ways like a central government; in some ways it was the UN. The Sioux are a people but arguably weren’t overall a single, unified country. There’s a reason it’s called Red Cloud’s war. It wasn’t all of the Sioux, just certain groups. It’s kinda like Austrians speak German, share a lot of “German” customs, et al. but they’re not Germans, they’re Austrians.

    Anyway, the problem is that much of the land wasn’t obtained from the Lakota, Nakota and Dakota by fighting. Some fighting did occur. But much of that was put to rest by treaties. Well, should have been put to rest by treaties.

    Of course there were treaties signed that should’ve prevented what fighting, fighting in terms of war that is, that did occur from occurring. And some of those conflicts, like the Sioux uprising that occurred early on in the civil (IIRC 1861, 1862) happened largely because the US government wasn’t living up to it’s treaty obligations and providing the supplies it promised in exchange for the land it got.

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