Tag Archives: transit

Irrelevance Across America

Something calling itself the “Accessibility Observatory” at the University of Minnesota has mapped transit accessibility for most of the nation’s 50 largest urban areas (Jacksonville, Memphis, Oklahoma City, and Richmond were left out for lack of transit data). Different colors on the maps show how many jobs are accessible from each point within 30 minutes by transit.


Click image to download report.

“At the highest levels,” gushes the report, “millions of jobs are accessible by transit within 30 minutes.” To be precise, millions of jobs are accessible by transit in Manhattan. In Chicago, the nation’s second-largest concentration of jobs, under a million jobs are accessible. San Francisco is under 750,000 jobs; Portland is under 500,000 jobs, and places like Tampa are under 250,000.

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Coping With Too Much Money

According to pro-rail transit Metro magazine, American cities face a dilemma: the demand for rail transit continues to grow, yet there is a scarcity of federal dollars to pay for it. Fortunately, writer Cliff Henke continues, cities have come up with innovative ways to get around this scarcity.

In fact, most of the things the article says are wrong or, at least, they indicate that cities have too much money, not a shortage. If it weren’t for this surfeit of funds, cities wouldn’t plan ridiculously expensive rail lines that, in most cases, do nothing for transit riders or transportation users in general. This is shown by all of the examples in his article.

The Overpriced Los Angeles Subway: The first example in the article is Los Angeles’ Westside Subway, which will be less than four miles long yet is expected to cost well over $2.8 billion, or more than $725 million per mile. This insane project is expected to attract just 7,700 new transit riders per day. That means the cost of getting one person out of their car for one trip on the subway will be $65. (I calculated this by amortizing the capital costs over 30 years at 2 percent interest, multiplying the daily new trips by 315, which is the average weekday trips per year on L.A.’s existing subway, and dividing annual new trips into the sum of the annual operating and annualized capital costs.)

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“Equity” Is a Word We Want to Use in this Press Release

Advancing its “regional transit equity” plan, the Twin Cities Metropolitan Council issued a press release last week announcing it has received a $3.26 million federal grant to build or “enhance” 140 bus shelters. This money is matched, on a one-to-four basis, with $815,000 of local funds, meaning each bus shelter will cost a whopping $29,000.

Meanwhile, the Met Council is twisting the arms of city officials to gain support for a $1.7-billion light-rail line extending from Minneapolis to Eden Prairie, which is probably the Twin Cities’ wealthiest suburb. Three (out of 13) members of the Minneapolis city council voted against the project, partly due to concerns over transit equity.

“If we think equity means maybe we might build some heated bus stops in north Minneapolis sometime in the future that we can’t promise or guarantee and we won’t tell you where they’ll be, then good for us for standing up for equity,” one of the councilors who voted “no” sarcastically stated.

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Making the Poor Subsidize the Rich

Utah Transit Authority executives are overcompensated, the agency has underfunded its high rail maintenance costs, its bus service has suffered due to financial constraints, concludes the Utah State Legislative Auditor. Moreover, as reported in the Salt Lake Tribune, the agency’s fare structure makes the poor subsidize the rich, which the agency has signed cushy deals with developers that sometimes financially benefit agency board members.

Sounds like a typical rail transit agency. Naturally, the agency claims (in an appendix to the report) that it is innocent of any wrongdoing. However, it cannot deny that bus service (as measured by vehicle revenue miles) declined nearly 20 percent between 2009 and 2012, years in which the agency spent close to #1 billion on commuter trains that, as of 2012, were carrying fewer than 3,200 round trips per day.

The American Public Transit Association recently named Utah Transit the transit system of the year. But it’s clear from past awards that APTA admires agencies that are best able to con taxpayers out of their money, not ones that provide the best service to transit riders. UTA, which is proud of spending more per capita than any other transit agency, seems to have done a good job of conning taxpayers. Let’s hope audits like this one will open their eyes.

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Transit’s Ticking Time Bomb

America’s largest transit agencies have obligated taxpayers to cover billions of dollars in pension and health care costs over the next thirty years. To see just how serious this problem is, the Antiplanner examined the consolidated financial statements for about two dozen of the nation’s largest transit agencies. The results vary widely from agency to agency: some have almost no unfunded obligations, while others appear headed for default or other serious financial problems.

The numbers in the table below are based on the latest financial statements I could obtain for each agency. Mostly this means 2013, but in a few cases they are one or two years older. Most agencies have growing unfunded obligations, so more recent updates are probably worse than shown. Agencies in some large cities, including Baltimore, Detroit, Minneapolis-St. Paul, San Francisco, and Seattle, are operated by other units of government whose financial statements don’t distinguish between unfunded transit obligations and other unfunded obligations. So if your large urban area isn’t on the above list, that’s probably why.

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Transit and Congestion

The Antiplanner was apparently exposed to a bad cold when traveling last week and didn’t feel up to writing a timely post for this morning. (Would I have avoided this if I had a driverless car to take me to San Francisco instead flying?)

However, someone emailed me in response to yesterday’s post asking if I was guilty of hyperbole when I said that, outside of New York, transit doesn’t “carry enough people to relieve much congestion.” So I prepared the above chart showing transit’s share of total travel (not just commuting) by urbanized areas. Only urbanized areas in which transit carries more than 2 percent of travel are shown.

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Who Needs Transit, Anyway?

Rail advocates often call the Antiplanner “anti-transit,” probably because it is easier to call people names than to answer rational arguments. I’ve always responded that I’m just against wasteful transit. But looking at the finances and ridership of transit systems around the country, it’s hard not to conclude that all government transit is wasteful transit.

Nationally, after adjusting for inflation, the APTA transit fact book shows that annual taxpayer subsidies to transit operations have grown from $1.6 billion in 1970 to $24.0 billion in 2012, yet per capita ridership among America’s urban residents has declined from 49 to 44 trips per year. A lot of that money ends up going to unionized transit workers, but the scary thing is that these workers have some of the best pension and health care plans in the world that are mostly unfunded–which means that transit subsidies will have to increase in the future even if no one rides it at all.

Capital and maintenance subsidies are nearly as great as operating subsidies, largely due to the industry’s fascination with costly rail transit. In 2012, while taxpayers spent $24 billion subsidizing transit operations, they also spent nearly $10 billion on maintenance, and more than $7 billion on capital improvements. In 2012, 25 percent of operating subsidies went to rail transit, but 56 percent of maintenance and 90 percent of capital improvements were spent on rails.

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Uncompetitive Transit

A web site called You Are Here has put together an intriguing series of maps showing the best mode of transportation from any point in various cites to any other part of those cities. So far, the maps cover Manhattan, Brooklyn, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Portland, Salt Lake City, Cambridge, Boulder, and Santa Monica.


Click image to go to the “Best Mode” Portland map.

Select any of the above cities (or click here to see if more cities have been added), wait for the map to load, then click anywhere on the map. Instantly, the map is color coded to show the fastest mode of transportation from the point you selected to anywhere else in the city. Modes include walking, cycling, public transit, and driving.

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Voting Themselves Bigger Budgets

An implicit principle in a democracy is that the officials who decide how your taxes are spent represent you, the taxpayers, and not the bureaucracies that receive your taxes. But Congress violated this principle when it wrote MAP-21, the 2012 transportation law. As detailed in a proposed rule earlier this month, the law gives transit agencies in major urban areas a vote on how much of each region’s transportation dollars are spent on transit.

State legislatures are made up of people elected by various voting districts, not representatives selected by the state departments of transportation, justice, welfare, fish & wildlife, parks, and other bureaucracies. Similarly, city councils are made up of people elected by the voters in that city, not by representatives selected by the various water, transportation, fire, and other bureaus.

In 1962, Congress mandated that urban areas of 50,000 people or more create metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) that would decide how to spend federal transportation and housing funds. At that time, it recognized this principle, specifying that the governing board of each MPO consist of elected officials from the various cities and counties in that urban area. While this was one step removed from the voters, it at least insured that the voters had an indirect say over how their money is spent.

However, MAP-21, the 2012 law reauthorizing federal transportation funding (including funding for MPOs), departed from this principle by requiring that transit agencies in all urban areas with 200,000 or more people be given representation on the MPO boards. In other words, the bureaucrats themselves will get to vote on their own budgets.

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Immobilize DC

Washington DC has proposed an anti-auto transportation plan that is ironically called “MoveDC” when its real goal is to reduce the mobility of DC residents. The plan calls for reducing auto commuting from 54 percent to no more than 25 percent of all workers in the district, while favoring transit, cycling, and walking.


Click image to download the plan’s executive summary. Click here to download other parts of the plan.

The plan would discourage auto driving by tolling roads entering the district and cordon-pricing. Tolls aren’t necessarily a bad idea: as the Antiplanner explained in this paper, properly designed tolls can relieve congestion and actually increase roadway capacities. But you can count on DC to design them wrong, using them more as a punitive and fundraising tool than as a way to relieve congestion. Cordon pricing is invariably a bad idea, much more of a way for cities to capture dollars from suburban commuters than to influence travel habits.

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