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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Honolulu city auditor’s review of the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation (HART) found numerous problems, including the use of obsolete and unreliable decision-making tools, failure to analyze major changes in the planned rail line, and leasing more office space than the agency needs. The rail line HART is constructing is already 25 percent over budget, and based on the problems found in the audit, the auditor “anticipate[s] additional cost overruns.”
Rather than fix the problems, HART officials chose to attack the messenger, claiming that the audit (which had been requested by the city council) was “politically motivated.” When the auditor shared a confidential draft of the audit with HART, HART shared it with unauthorized people, attempted to intimidate the auditors, and went to the press to attack the auditors before the audit was made public.
Not many people believe the agency’s attack on the city auditor. Honolulu’s mayor asked the the chair of HART’s board and another one of its board members to resign, perhaps hoping to use them as scapegoats for the project’s failings. Yet shaking the top of the agency won’t help fix the fundamental problems, which are that a $6 billion construction project is really beyond the region’s needs or the agency’s abilities.
The New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) has formally quit its membership in the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), the nation’s principle transit lobby. In a harshly worded seven-page letter, MTA accused APTA of poor governance, an undue focus on small transit agencies, and having an embarrassingly large compensation package to APTA’s president.
The MTA and its affiliates, Metro North, the Long Island Railroad, and New York City Transit, together carry 35 percent of all transit riders in America. Since MTA’s ridership has been growing while transit elsewhere has declined, this percentage is increasing.
Yet APTA’s focus has been on lobbying for increased funding for smaller agencies, including building new rail transit lines in cities that haven’t had rail transit and extending transit service in smaller cities and rural areas that have had little transit at all. As a result, says the letter, MTA has been short-changed by roughly a billion dollars a year in federal funding that it would have received if funds were distributed according to the number of transit riders carried.
Despite a “growing population, a rebounding economy, growing total employment, and an aggressively argued hypothesis that the millennial generation is meaningfully different than their forefathers,” says transportation researcher Steven Polzin, “transit ridership has remained stubbornly modest.” That’s a generous view that takes into account slow ridership growth between 2012 and 2014 but ridership declines in 2015.
Polzin points to numerous factors that work against transit: lower fuel prices, increased auto sharing, increased cycling and walking, and diminishing returns on extensions of existing transit services. He also points out that, contrary to claims that Americans are substituting transit for driving in large numbers, recent data suggest that “the new normal for travel trends is looking more like the old normal.”
However, he misses a couple of key points. First, Polzin compares transit ridership over time with the population, concluding that per capita transit ridership “is a pretty straight horizontal line since about 1970.” In fact, he should have compared transit ridership with the urban population, as few rural residents are served by transit. Since the urban population is growing faster than the overall population, per capita urban transit ridership has declined by about 15 percent since 1970. This makes transit’s future appear even dimmer than Polzin suggests.