Tag Archives: transit

Forward into the Past Via VIA

The San Antonio urban area has about 1.9 million people today and, if it keeps growing at recent rates, will add 1.6 million more by 2040. VIA, the region’s transit agency, gets most of its money from a one-half-cent sales tax, so by 2040 it will get about 80 percent more tax revenues.


Click image to download this 40-MB PDF.

The agency is hungry for more, however, so it has written a long-range plan called Vision 2040. Actually, to call this a plan is generous; it is actually more of a sales brochure, as it doesn’t consider any alternatives, any impacts of the proposal, or any real information about costs. Instead, it merely says that it wants increased taxes to provide bus-rapid transit on exclusive bus lanes and possibly light rail–in other words, transit infrastructure that might have been useful a few decades ago, but certainly won’t be useful a few decades from now.

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Transit Versus Self-Driving Cars

Two years ago, the Antiplanner predicted that self-driving cars would put most transit agencies out of business. So it’s not surprising to see push-back against self-driving cars from transit supporters. What’s surprising is that it took so long.

Cities need more public transit, not Uber and self-driving cars,” says Kevin Cashman, a policy analyst with the progressive Center for Economic and Policy Research. “We don’t need self-driving cars — we need to ditch our vehicles entirely,” argues California writer Rebecca Solnit in the Guardian.

Cashman’s argument is that self-driving cars won’t be “affordable,” while public transit is. Excuse me? In 2014, American transit agencies spent $59 billion to move people 57 billion passenger miles (see page 106). That’s more than a dollar per passenger mile.

All spending on cars and driving, meanwhile, amounted to $1.1 billion (add lines 54, 57, and 116 of table 2.5.5). Highway subsidies in 2014 were about $45 billion (subtract gas tax diversions to transit and non-highway purposes from “other taxes and fees”). For that cost, Americans drove 2.7 trillion vehicle miles in light-duty vehicles. At an average occupancy of 1.67 people per vehicle (see table 16), that’s 4.5 trillion passenger miles, which works out to an average cost of 26 cents a passenger mile.

In other words, transit is only “affordable” because three-fourths of the cost is subsidized, while less than 4 percent of the cost of driving is subsidized. I’m in favor of ending both subsidies, but someone has to pay those costs; when adding them in, driving is four times more affordable than transit.

Cashman’s dependence on low-income people to make his case isn’t credible anymore, both because most low-income people have cars and most people riding transit today aren’t low-income. Cashman makes some valid points about Uber’s lack of profitability and its use of aggressive lobbying, but that doesn’t change the fact that self-driving cars are going to completely change urban landscapes.

Solnit’s argument is even more shallow. She rides transit, so therefore everyone else should too. Her argument would be only a little stronger if she didn’t admit that she herself has not yet “ditched her car entirely.” The reality is that transit only works for a few people, as suggested by the facts that Americans drove more than 1.9 trillion vehicle miles in urban areas in 2014 but rode transit only 57 billion passenger miles. At 1.67 people per vehicle, that means transit accounted for about 1.7 percent of motorized urban travel.

Back in 2014, after the Antiplanner predicted the doom of public transit, Human Transit writer Jarrett Walker wrote a more insightful, but still flawed, response. Really dense cities will still need transit, he argued. I don’t disagree with that; my paper admitted that transit would survive in New York City and perhaps Chicago and San Francisco.

But Walker went on to argue that “technology never changes geometric facts.” That’s a ridiculous statement, as we know very well that steam trains, streetcars, and automobiles all resulted in major changes to urban landscapes. Since Henry Ford’s first use of the moving assembly line to make automobiles, for example, virtually all urban centers in the developed world have seen major declines in density. Manhattan, for example, had more than 2.3 million people in 1910; by 2010, it was less than 1.6 million. Most other centers have seen even greater declines.

So the question is not, as Walker poses it, will self-driving cars replace transit in really dense urban centers? Instead, it is, what will happen to those dense urban centers once self-driving cars give people even more freedom to live and work somewhere else?

A breath of fresh air comes from Portland-area resident Bill Conerly, who writes in Forbes that “self-driving cars will eliminate premium pricing for transit-oriented development” by reducing congestion and the costs of travel. I’m not sure there is much premium pricing for transit-oriented development (if there were, Portland wouldn’t have needed to spend well over $1 billion subsidizing it), but Conerly’s point is the same as the Antiplanner’s: cities shouldn’t spend on transit and transit-oriented development under the assumption that transportation technologies will never change.

As the Antiplanner has said before, no one can accurately predict how self-driving cars will affect cities, thus any long-term plans are likely to be wrong. Instead of making such plans, cities should focus on solving today’s problems today. As Gandalph said in my favorite quote from Lord of the Ring, “it is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.”

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Philadelphia Transit Troubles

Service on Philadelphia commuter trains has been interrupted due to serious defects found in Silverliner V cars, which are less than six years old. The cars were built by Hyundai, which had never built railcars for an American transit line before, and make up 30 percent of Philadelphia’s commuter-rail fleet.


Wikimedia Commons photo by John Corbett.

Last Friday, a SEPTA worker noticed one of the cars was leaning to one side. A close look revealed a 10-inch crack in one of the car’s wheel sets. Further inspection discovered similar cracks in 95 percent of the cars made by Hyundai. These have all been taken out of service, and the Southeast Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) has urged commuters to find another mode of travel for the foreseeable future.

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Seven Cities Competing to Waste $40 Million

Electric cars! Robocars! Smart transit stations! Solar-powered buses! Free WiFi in transit corridors! These are some of the ideas proposed by seven cities that made the cut from 71 original applicants for President Obama’s “smart city” challenge. The Obama administration promises to give away $40 million to some lucky winner, with more likely in future years.

These are almost all stupid ideas that will do little to fix the real transportation problems in the cities that are applying for the funds. But the federal government has offered funds for these kinds of projects, so these kinds of projects is what cities will do.

Almost all of the applicants, for example, mentioned self-driving cars or robocars. But, as the Antiplanner has shown before, no new infrastructure is needed for the self-driving cars being developed by Google, Volvo, Volkswagen, Ford, and other companies to operate. All they really need is clear road stripes, consistent road signs and signals, smooth roads, and perhaps some standards for road construction detours. None of the applicants will do these things; instead, they will fritter away the federal funds on things that self-driving cars won’t need.

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What Transit Can Do and What It Can’t Do

One of Captain Jack Sparrow’s famous sayings in the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie was, “The only rules that really matter are these: what a man can do and what a man can’t do.” The Antiplanner’s faithful ally, Tom Rubin, echoes these words in a recent presentation focusing on what transit can do and what transit can’t do. In particular, he says, transit can provide mobility for people who can’t or don’t want to drive, but it can’t relieve congestion, reduce transportation costs to taxpayers, save energy, reduce pollution, create real estate development, or stimulate the economy of a region.

Rubin used to be the chief financial officer for one of the largest transit agencies in the nation, so he knows what he’s talking about. He goes on to say that, when transit agencies try to do some of the things they can’t do, they end up doing poorer jobs of the things they can do.

Much of his presentation draws upon his 2013 study on the relationship between transit and congestion. One of the study’s findings was that increased transit use is associated with increased congestion. Rubin suggests this is partly because regions that spend more of their transportation dollars on transit end up more congested because transit is not a cost-effective solution to congestion.

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Warped Logic Spins Transit Measure

Students graduating college used to look for jobs and then moved to the cities where the job were located. Now they move to cities they like and then look for jobs. Therefore, any city that wants to attract recent college graduates had better spend more money on transit.

That’s the logic used by John Robert Smith, who chairs Transportation for America (aka Reconnecting America), to support a proposed tax increase for Spokane Transit. There are so many flaws in this reasoning that it is hard to know where to begin, but let’s just start with the presumption that transit is at all important to the lives of more than a tiny fraction of people in Spokane.

As the Antiplanner noted Tuesday, transit moves less than 2 percent of passenger travel in all but about eighteen urban areas. In Spokane, it’s 1.4 percent. The American Community Survey says that 3.0 percent of Spokane-area commuters–that’s a bit more than 5,000 people–usually took transit to work in 2014.

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Transit’s Share of Urban Travel in 2014

Transit carried 16.6 percent of motorized travel in Honolulu, more than in any other urban area in the country. New York is second at 11.9 percent, followed by San Francisco at 7.9 percent, Chicago at 4.0 percent, State College PA at 3.7 percent, Seattle at 3.5 percent, Lompoc CA at 3.3 percent, and Boston at 3.2 percent. Philadelphia, Salt Lake (but see below), Portland, Baltimore, Los Angeles, Louisville, and six smaller urban areas are between 2 and 3 percent, and 35 urban areas are between 1 and 2 percent. Transit’s share in the remaining 350 or so urban areas is less than 1 percent.

The Antiplanner calculated these numbers using the newly posted table HM-72, “Urbanized area summary,” from the 2014 Highway Statistics, and from my summary spreadsheet of the 2014 National Transit Database. The National Transit Database has annual passenger miles of transit use by agency and designates which urban area is served by each agency; my summary spreadsheet totals the numbers for each urban area. Table HM-72 has daily vehicle miles of travel by urbanized area.

To convert daily vehicle miles to annual passenger miles, I multiplied daily by 365–unlike the transit people, the highway agencies use the average of all days in the week, not the weekday average–and then by 1.6 to account for vehicle occupancy. I calculated the 1.6 based on the share of urban travel by car, motorcycle, truck, and bus from table VM-1, using 1.55 for short wheelbase vehicles, 1.84 for long-wheelbase light-duty vehicles, 1 for motorcycles and heavy trucks and 11 for buses. There’s a slight bit of double counting as slightly less than 1/2 of a percent of urban vehicle miles is buses, and most of those are transit buses, but this won’t change the numbers much.

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APTA Tinkers with the Deck Chairs

Your largest member has just quit, complaining that your organization doesn’t do enough to help it and other large members and that they are underrepresented on your organization’s executive committee. And, oh, by the way, you’re paying your chief executive officer too much.

So what do you do? If you are the American Public Transportation Association, you fire the CEO. That’s not really going to solve any problems, but after 4-1/2 years of getting paid nearly $900,000 per year (see page 17), he probably has enough to retire on. There’s no word yet on whether his replacement will get a similar salary.

A salary and benefits of close to a million dollars a year might make sense for a company that earns billions of dollars in annual revenues. It makes a little less sense for APTA, which uses its $20 million in annual revenues to lobby Congress to get billions of federal dollars funneled to its members. It makes even less sense since the federal funds going to APTA members did not significantly increase during the reign of the newly retired CEO, part of whose qualifications are that he once drove the bus for the Indiana University basketball team coached by Bobby Knight. It is particularly galling to outsiders since taxpayers are the ultimate source of the funds used to pay him.

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Hillsborough County Commissioners Vote No

Tampa-area voters will be spared the expense of having to go through another campaign to build an obsolete transit system in the city thanks to a 3-to-2 vote against the project by Hillsborough County commissioners. Voters already rejected the light-rail project once in 2010, and voters in neighboring Pinellas County voted against a connecting rail project in 2014.

In the end, it was a close thing. The swing vote on the county commission, Victor Crist, said he made his decision during a three-hour public hearing at which half the witnesses favored the project and half opposed. But to get a realistic look at the reality of urban rail transit, Crist and his fellow commissioners need only look at their neighbor to the south, San Juan, Puerto Rico.

As the Antiplanner noted the other day, Puerto Rico is $70 billion in debt, and one of those billions is for the Tren Urbano, a rail system that opened in 2004. Not only are local residents having to repay that $1 billion, they have to spend nearly $50 million per year to keep it operating, partly because ridership is less than half of what was projected.

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San Jose Bus Ridership Plummets

The San Jose Mercury News points out the “staggering drop in VTA bus ridership” and suggests “dramatic changes” are needed to reverse that decline. However, it misses the elephant in the room, namely that the drop in ridership is directly due to the Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) cutting bus service in order to fund its rail transit fantasies–fantasies that have been repeatedly endorse by the Mercury News.

The Mercury News reports “ridership on buses and light-rail trains has dropped a staggering 23 percent since 2001.” This understates the problem as light-rail ridership actually grew by about 19 percent during this time period, mainly because of an expansion of light-rail lines from 29.2 route miles in 2001 to 40.5 route miles in 2014. The small ridership increase gained by a 44 percent growth in route miles is distressing in itself, especially considering that the area’s 13 percent population growth accounts for most of the light-rail ridership growth.

The real tragedy is what happened to bus ridership, which declined by 32 percent from more than 48 million trips in 2001 to less than 33 million in 2014. (Light-rail and bus ridership and service numbers are from the National Transit Database Historic Time Series.) As it happens, in the same time period vehicle miles of bus service fell by 22 percent, a drop that explains most if not all of the decline in ridership.

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