Transportation Manifesto 2013

The New Year seems an appropriate time to state, or restate, the main goals of this blog. Today the Antiplanner will focus on transportation. Future manifestos will focus on land-use regulation and public land management. Any suggestions for improving these principles and corollaries are welcome.

1. The Transportation Agency Principle: The sole goal of government transportation agencies should be to efficiently enhance mobility.

Mobility is so important socially and economically that it deserves the same protection under the Constitution as freedom of speech and freedom of religion. (In fact, freedom of movement is nominally protected under the privileges and immunities clause of the Constitution.) Enhancements in mobility over the past century have been a major factor in increasing wealth, reducing poverty, increasing lifespans, and increasing leisure time. No other goal should be allowed to divert attention from the efficient enhancement of mobility.

Corollary 1a: Jobs are not an appropriate goal of transportation projects.

Contrary to popular belief, people don’t want jobs; they want income. Efficient increases in mobility will lead to higher incomes by creating new economic opportunities. But a focus on jobs leads to inappropriate outcomes: given a choice between two transportation projects that produce the same mobility, the one that requires the fewest number of jobs is probably the most efficient because it probably costs less overall.

Corollary 1b: Economic development is not an appropriate goal of transportation projects.

As with incomes, efficient mobility enhancements will lead to economic development by creating new economic opportunities. But a focus on economic development too easily descends into crony capitalism–the diversion of funds to projects that benefit a few–and social engineering–the selection of projects based on the kind and location of economic developments that cities and city planners want rather than those the market considers most efficient.

Corollary 1c: Transportation externalities are often inefficient, but they should be dealt with by controlling the externality, not the transportation.

Accidents and pollution should be treated by making transportation vehicles and infrastructure safer and cleaner, not by trying to discourage people from using those vehicles and infrastructure. Efforts to reduce air pollution by reducing driving, for example, are both costly and ineffective.

2. The Incentive Principle: Although fiscal conservatives often propose to solve transportation problems by privatizing facilities, who owns the facility matters less than the incentives faced by the managers.

A private transportation operation that has bad incentives (perhaps due to regulation or franchise restrictions) can be less efficient than a public transportation operation that has good incentives. Some examples of bad private operations are private transit lines that are guaranteed a subsidy. Examples of good public operations are county toll road authorities in Texas that derive their revenues solely from user tolls.

Corollary 2a: The best incentives are provided by user fees and the best measure of an “efficient” enhancement of mobility is whether users are willing to pay for that mobility.

Projects that require subsidies allow people to benefit without paying the costs, which leads to a higher than realistic demand for those projects and in turn leads to a demand for more subsidies. Transportation projects that cannot pay for themselves directly out of user fees should be considered inefficient.

Corollary 2b: Competition in transportation leads to innovation and lower costs.

One reason to privatize transportation facilities is to increase competition; but privatization that creates monopolies could be little better than government ownership. On the other hand, state, county, and city ownership of roads potentially creates competition that, if funded by users, could lead to improvements at all levels.

Corollary 2c: Diversions of transportation revenues to other modes are almost always inefficient.

A transport facility that is funded by taxpayers or users of another transport mode has little incentive to serve users. While it is theoretically possible that a toll road authority, for example, may want to subsidize transit to relieve congestion, most such cross-subsidies would create perverse incentives that should be avoided.

3. The Highway Principle: The goal of highway agencies should be to help people get where they want to go, not to where planners want them to go.

Sometime during the 1970s and 1980s, transportation planning shifted from building the infrastructure people wanted to use to building the infrastructure planners thought people should use. The Interstate Highway System, which was built largely following major traffic patterns, was enormously successful and has more than paid its own way out of the gas taxes generated by highway users. But most transportation projects that focused on directing traffic to where planners thought people should go have proven to be a huge and costly failure.

Corollary 3a: Congestion pricing is the most effective, if not the only effective, solution to highway congestion.

Highway congestion costs Americans between $100 and $200 billion a year, yet few cities or states are making anything other than token efforts to reduce this cost. Just as airlines, hotels, phone companies, and others who deal with variable demand have done, economists have long suggested that highway agencies use congestion pricing to reduce or eliminate traffic congestion.

Congestion pricing would be doubly effective for highways because highways are the only resources whose supply actually shrinks when demand increases. A freeway lane can normally move about 2,000 vehicles per hour in free-flowing traffic, but when congestion forces slow downs, flow capacities fall to as low as 1,000 vehicles per hour or less. By keeping capacities at 2,000 vehicles per hour, congestion pricing can effectively double highway capacities during rush hours.

Corollary 3b: States should expediently replace gasoline taxes with vehicle-mile fees.

Vehicle-mile charges allow people to pay for the roads they use, not the roads someone else uses. Moreover, they will greatly ease the use of congestion pricing on congested roads; allow cities and counties that now subsidize roads out of general funds to collect user fees; and avoid the problem of declining revenues due to more fuel-efficient cars.

All vehicle-mile fee projects that have been designed to date preserve user privacy, so that should not be a concern. Eliminating gas taxes when introducing vehicle-mile fees effectively eliminates claims that people are being charged twice to use the roads.

Corollary 3c: When congestion fees produce surplus revenues, those surpluses should be used to increase highway capacities.

Highway user fees should be set to pay for the roads that are used. But if fees to use congested roads are set high enough to prevent congestion, they are likely to produce surplus revenues. Those surpluses should be used to do things that relieve congestion such as traffic signal coordination, elimination of highway bottlenecks, and even adding new highway lanes. So long as the goal is mobility enhancement, rather than political pork barrel, there is nothing wrong with using surplus revenues from the users of one road to build new roads elsewhere, especially if those new roads will help relieve congestion on the first road.

4. The Transit Principle: The goal of transit agencies should be to provide mobility for people who can’t or prefer not to drive, not to persuade people to drive less.

Efforts to get people out of their cars through increased transit subsidies have proven to be a costly and misguided failure. Since 1970, the nation has spent something more than half a trillion dollars subsidizing transit, yet the number of transit trips taken by the average urban resident is lower today than it was in 1970.

Corollary 4a: Transit agencies should design transit systems that fit the regions they serve, not seek to redesign their regions to fit the transit system they want to provide.

Most transit systems are built around a traditional concept of a city having lots of jobs in a downtown surrounded by residential areas. The hub-and-spoke nature of most transit systems would work if cities were still like this. But today the average big-city downtown has only about 10 percent of the jobs in its region, and a hub-and-spoke system poorly serves the other 90 percent of commuters.

Instead of redesigning transit to fit modern cities, too many transit agencies want to redesign cities to fit their service by locating more residents and jobs along transit corridors. This is a costly and futile endeavor.

Corollary 4b: Private transit operators have proven to be far more efficient than public transit agencies.

Private contractors in Denver spend little more than half as much, per vehicle mile, operating buses as Denver’s Regional Transit District. Private bus operations in Atlanta, Miami, and other cities provide transit services as the same or lower fares, but without subsidies, as public transit agencies. Notwithstanding principle 2, the advantages of private operations are so great that people seeking to improve transit services should harness the innovative and cost-saving nature of private enterprise.

Corollary 4c: Efficient transit relies on infrastructure shared with other transport modes, not on dedicated infrastructure.

Private transportation operators such as Megabus reduce costs and increase mobility by shedding dedicated infrastructure (such as bus stations) and relying mainly on shared infrastructure. Too many transit agencies instead are focusing on dedicated infrastructure such as rail lines, dedicated bus lanes, and expensive multi-modal facilities. These costly projects may serve political ends but do little for mobility.

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16 thoughts on “Transportation Manifesto 2013

  1. C. P. Zilliacus

    The Antiplanner wrote:

    Corollary 1a: Jobs are not an appropriate goal of transportation projects.

    Corollary 1b: Economic development is not an appropriate goal of transportation projects.

    I generally agree with the above.

    But providing highway access to intermodal facilities (including airports (for freight and passenger moves); and railroad terminals seaports, river ports and pipeline terminals (for freight moves)) is something that matters – and failure to provide access to these is ultimately a way for local governments to destroy their base of jobs.

  2. C. P. Zilliacus

    The Antiplanner also wrote:

    Instead of redesigning transit to fit modern cities, too many transit agencies want to redesign cities to fit their service by locating more residents and jobs along transit corridors. This is a costly and futile endeavor.

    And any purported benefits from the above are usually so small that it is hard to quantify them.

  3. msetty

    A lot of peer-reviewed studies say “proximity” is more important than “mobility” per se, everything else held equal. That is, access to daily activities being the primary reason people travel–a point consistent with economists pointing out transportation is a “derived” demand (at least for purposes other than pleasure driving).

    For example, this link supplied by Planetizen:
    http://www.connectnorwalk.com/wp-content/uploads/JAPA-article-mobility-vs-proximity.pdf

    Proximity Trumps Mobility: Smart Growth Maximizes Accessibility
    Wednesday, December 26, 2012 – 11:00am PST by Todd Litman

    The increased proximity provided by more compact and centralized development is about ten times more influential than vehicle traffic speed on the number of destinations that people can reach within a given travel time.

    Researchers analyzed the number of destinations that can be accessed within a given amount of travel time by mode (automobile and transit) and purpose (work and non-work trips) for about 30 US metropolitan areas. They found that although denser urban development tends to reduce vehicle travel speeds, the increased proximity is about ten times more influential than travel speed in determining a metropolitan area’s overall accessibility. This indicates that smart growth policies which increase development density and mix, transport network connectivity, and transport system diversity can do more to improve overall transport system performance than efforts to increase traffic speeds and reduce congestion.

    The authors conclude, “Having destinations nearby, as when densities are high, offers benefits even when the associated congestion slows traffic. Where land use policy frequently seeks to support low-development densities in part in an attempt to maintain travel speeds and forestall traffic congestion, our findings suggest that compact development can often improve transportation outcomes.”

    Oops! Us pesky planners at it again…

  4. msetty

    BTW, this is really Randal’s “Highway Manifesto 2013″ not Transportation.

    His key fallacy is this:
    1. The Transportation Agency Principle: The sole goal of government transportation agencies should be to efficiently enhance mobility.

    It is true that people don’t want jobs (per se) they want income. Well…
    People don’t want mobility per se, they want access and proximity to daily activities. “Mobility” as envisaged by Randal et al is mainly for pleasure driving OUTSIDE city, town and suburban cores, as indeed how it functions in the Western nation with the best balance between various modes, e.g., Switzerland.

    How they get their desired access to daily activities is a highly complex issue that goes way beyond obsolete, simplistic 1950’s notions of maximizing “mobility” or “reducing congestion.” In fact, congestion is a secondary issue with costs to the economy dwarfed by costs such as excessive oil imports, deaths, injuries and property damage NOT covered by auto insurance, “free” (sic) parking, as well as other massive negative externalities caused by the land use damage of excessive parking, auto-based pollution, and so forth.

    My transportation manifesto would begin with the simple idea that the first “mode” is still the best, simplest, and certainly the least expensive: walking. In economic and social desirability, followed by “pedestrian accelerators” such as bicycles and transit. Since the needs of people must come first, there still is a major role for motor vehicles, but not at the expense of the other modes or the destruction of walkable cities, towns and suburbs.

    On these urban transportation issues the Europeans mostly have done the right thing: put pedestrians, bicycles and transit first, with a secondary role for motor vehicles WITHIN cities, towns and suburbs (notice I am NOT saying the “countryside”–even in Switzerland, the nation with the best balance of these things, motor vehicles are used primarily for pleasure travel mainly OUTSIDE of cities and towns).

  5. gecko55

    “A lot of peer-reviewed studies say “proximity” is more important than “mobility” per se, everything else held equal.”

    I haven’t read the peer reviewed studies, but the idea makes sense.

    ad hominem diversion: Randal has lived in Portland, Corvallis, Eugene, small town coastal Oregon, small town central Oregon. Never been, never will be a city kid. So his “manifestos” about transportation and “mobility” must be understand as conceptual … and I would argue facile.

    In the real world, ready proximity to the stuff you want — work, shopping, recreation, friends, amusement, etc. — seems to make a huge difference.

  6. Frank

    Randal spent quite a lot of time in Portland if I’m not mistaken, and Portland the 23rd most populous metro area with 2.2M residents. Hardly a small town. Rethink your premise.

  7. Dan

    How they get their desired access to daily activities is a highly complex issue that goes way beyond obsolete, simplistic 1950?s notions of maximizing “mobility” or “reducing congestion.” In fact, congestion is a secondary issue with costs to the economy dwarfed by costs such as excessive oil imports, deaths, injuries and property damage NOT covered by auto insurance, “free” (sic) parking, as well as other massive negative externalities caused by the land use damage of excessive parking, auto-based pollution, and so forth.

    Lewis Black has a funny bit about bottled water, and how it appears that corporations (Coke, Pepsi) have found a new market, whereby the water in your house is bad and you have to drive, drive, drive around to get water now. George Carlin also had a related bit about how he asks people if he can drink their water and the answer is invariably ‘no’, so he drinks it.

    These two bits are about perception and willingness to believe. Germane to several key premises on this thread, IMHO.

    DS

  8. msetty

    Yes, Frank, Randal did live in Portland for a long time. He then moved to Bandon, OR (pop. 3,066 in 2010) for a while, then to a small settlement roughly 35 miles northwest of Bend. I guess several thousand cars per day on Highway 101 through Bandon was much too “urban” for Randal, though where he lives now can be crazy during the summer. I suspect Randal would be even happier on a remote cattle ranch in Montana somewhere if he didn’t have to drive 50 or 60 miles each way just to get a carton of milk…though it is 14+ miles to Sisters, OR.

    My “manifesto” such as it is is based on the fact I was born and raised in a small CA coastal, very walkable and compact “real” town (Pacific Grove, CA), a Sierra Foothills retirement community (Paradise, CA), a big city (Oakland), a small regional Bay Area city (Napa, CA), and currently on a winding mountain road 14 miles from downtown Napa for family reasons (not my first choice).

    Of all the places I’ve lived, I liked Pacific Grove the best, followed by my eight years in an Oakland apartment 1/4 mile from the Piedmont Theater. This is because you could walk everywhere, even where transit service sucked (as it did in the 1960’s and early 1970’s on the Monterey Peninsula, and in Oakland away from Broadway, where AC Transit Route 51 ran every 10-12 minutes, with infrequent service elsewhere near Piedmont Avenue). The worst was Paradise, where you could not safely walk or bike along most roadways due to no shoulders, deep drainage ditches and narrow lanes). The City of Napa is a mixed bag compared to the walk/bike conditions in PG and Oakland.

    I’d say where Randal currently lives is more convenient than where I live now because it is only 15 minutes away over a 55-60 mph state highway to “town” (Sisters), vs. my 14 miles and 30+ minutes each way over a narrow 30-35 mph winding road, and too often dodging confused tourists trying to find their condo room at Napa’s Silverado Resort.

  9. msetty

    Second paragraph to my previous post should read:

    My “manifesto” such as it is is based on the fact I was born and raised in a small CA coastal, very walkable and compact “real” town (Pacific Grove, CA), lived in a Sierra Foothills retirement community (Paradise, CA), a big city (Oakland), a small regional Bay Area city (Napa, CA), and currently on a winding mountain road 14 miles from downtown Napa for family reasons (not my first choice).

    Randal, please see if you can revive an editing tool on this blog. Thanks.

  10. Sandy Teal

    Why would college students study urban planning if all they do is react to what people want? The whole point of social sciences is that you get to shape the future society based upon what you think is important, not what the uneducated or capitalistic masses want.

  11. Sandy Teal

    The bottled water craze is clearly linked to social signalling about what is “cool” to drink. Starbucks figured it out first that people would rather be seen drinking a $5 coffee than a $1 coffee. The bottled water people just came to it late, realizing that people would rather be seen drinking a $2 bottled water than the free drinking water.

    A great proof is how cities that get great water almost directly from rain water have almost the same water bottle use as cities at the bottom of a long river. It is a social-cool trend, not a health trend.

  12. bennett

    “BTW, this is really Randal’s “Highway Manifesto 2013? not Transportation.”

    Couldn’t have said it any better myself. The focus on trains and highways around here is almost pathological. There is never any discussion of integrated transportation networks that include roads and streets. Buses are hardly ever addressed, unless they intercity carriers.

    That said, I agree with Mr. O’Toole’s 4 major points and more than 1/2 of his corollaries, but this is short-sided. There is more to mobility than highway travel, but alas, just talking about highways makes it real easy to ignore road subsidies and focus on the gas tax quasi user fee.

  13. metrosucks

    The focus on trains and highways around here is almost pathological

    It’s Randal’s blog, if he wants to talk about trains and highways, that’s his prerogative. Streets and roads are local decisions that aren’t normally planned as part of a metro-area wide process.

    but alas, just talking about highways makes it real easy to ignore road subsidies and focus on the gas tax quasi user fee.

    I can’t believe that you actually said this with a straight face, considering the almost 100% subsidization of transit, especially rail, and ironically, the fact that car drivers are doing the subsidization, for the most part.

  14. C. P. Zilliacus

    msetty wrote:

    Randal, please see if you can revive an editing tool on this blog. Thanks.

    Mr. Setty, I strongly agree, and to the extent that it matters (it is still Randal’s blog), I second your suggestion.

  15. bennett

    I see metrosucks,

    Two wrongs make a right? Have your cake and eat it too? Please enlighten me on how roads, streets, neighborhood streets, city arterials and the like are unsubsidized. Also, if these infrastructure entities did not exist, please elaborate on how highways would be useful?

    My point (which you always seem to miss) is that “there is never any discussion of integrated transportation networks.” Mr. O’Toole and his cohorts focus on highways because it’s easy for them to chalk up one in the win column. Yes highways are paid for by the gas tax, and next to tolling, it’s the closest thing to a user fee. But highways are completely useless without a heavily subsidized transportation network to support them.

    Here’s what you don’t understand about Mr. O’Toole’s blog. This is not some game of ideological superiority. It’s a place where ideological foes can meet and have substantive conversation. If the comparison is always between highways and misguided rail transit projects, then the debate is settled. Unfortunately there are successful transit services that get no recognition around here and there are other ways to drive than just on highways. Why don’t we ever talk about these aspects of mobility?

  16. Sandy Teal

    Once you start talking about neighborhood streets, then a whole host of government functions rely upon them and thus you could argue should pay for them:
    – police
    – fire
    – schools
    – post office
    – sewer, electricity, gas, water, cable, telephone
    – access to build and repair the house

    You can’t really argue that only car owners have to pay for school bus routes and all the other access. Neighborhood roads are very multipurpose, and that is why it makes sense they are funded by general funds.

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