Tag Archives: transit

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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$80 Million a Mile for a Piece of Junk

The latest cost estimate for the proposed 4.5-mile Arlington, Virginia streetcar has risen to $358 million, or $80 million per mile. This puts it in the same ballpark as light rail, as current light-rail projects in Dallas, Minneapolis, Phoenix, Sacramento, and Salt Lake City are costing $50 million to $80 million per mile (though the average for all current light-rail projects is nearly $110 million).


A model of the proposed Arlington streetcar. Local taxpayers will be lucky if the rail supporters in the Arlington County Department of Environmental Services will be satisfied playing with the model instead of forcing taxpayers to build the real thing.

What would Arlington get for all this money? Proponents, such as Arlington County manager Barbara Donnellan, still call streetcars “high-capacity transit” even though streetcars have about the lowest capacity of any transit system imaginable. Heck, minivans can probably move about as many people per hour as streetcars.

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That’ll Teach ‘Em

King County Metro is having a banner year in terms of sales tax revenues, collecting $32 million, or almost 7.5 percent, more than anticipated. But the agency still petulantly plans to eliminate 72 bus routes and reduce service on 84 other routes because voters rejected a tax increase a couple of weeks ago.

The unanticipated revenue could provide half the money the agency says it needs to maintain bus service. But rather than keep the buses running, it says it will put that extra revenue in a “rainy day fund.” “Isn’t Metro’s rainy day happening right now?” asks the Washington Policy Center. In addition to using those revenues to keep some of the buses running, the Policy Center suggests that Metro cut costs by, among other things, buying regular buses instead of expensive hybrid-electric buses.

“Diesel buses are dirtier and cost more to operate,” chides a Seattle blogger. But, as the Antiplanner has documented before, the tiny cost savings from using hybrid buses comes nowhere near repaying their operating costs. Transit agencies that buy hybrid buses are letting ego blind them to the reality that hybrid buses just aren’t very efficient.

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The Inevitable Decline of Government

LaVonda Atkinson, the cost engineer for San Francisco Muni‘s $1.6 billion Central Subway project, has found so many problems with the project–and so little interest within Muni or the Federal Transit Administration in fixing those problems–that she has given hundreds of pages of budgetary and internal documents to the San Francisco Weekly. “Your article” about these documents “is going to get me fired,” she told the Weekly‘s reporter.


Politicians such as then-San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom (center) love to have their photos taken breaking ground or cutting ribbons, in this case for the Central Subway project.

As just one example, Muni told the San Francisco city controller that it spent $110 million on preliminary engineering, when it told the Federal Transit Administration that it spent only $70 million. The extra $40 million went into a slush fund for other stuff.

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Measuring Downtowns

The Antiplanner’s faithful ally, Wendell Cox, has just released a new compilation of downtown job data. His data include the number of jobs in the nation’s 52 largest metropolitan areas (those with populations of more than a million people), the percentage of each region’s jobs that is downtown, and transit’s share of commuting to those downtown jobs. These numbers are based on the Census Bureau’s American Community Surveys for 2006-2008, so are mostly from before the recent recession.


Click image to download report.

One thing the data show is how New York is unlike any other metropolitan area in the country. New York is the only metro area that has more than a million jobs downtown, and it has just shy of two million. Number two is Chicago, which has just over 500,000. New York is the only metro area that has more than 15 percent of its jobs downtown, and it has 22 percent. New York is the only metro area in which transit carries more than 60 percent of downtown commuters; in fact, it’s 77 percent.

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The Transit Train Wreck

Investigators have concluded that the driver of the CTA train that crashed at O’Hare earlier this week slept through the stop. Moreover, she apparently had a record of falling asleep at work before. However, investigators also concluded that two back-up systems that should have stopped the train before it crashed even without a waking driver failed as well.


We’ve spent roughly $1 trillion since 1970 for not much return. Capital spending before 1990 is not available, but probably followed a trajectory similar to operating subsidies (i.e, operating costs minus fares). Click image to download a spreadsheet with these and other data mentioned in this post.

Meanwhile, the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) defends its claim that recent ridership statistics represent a genuine “shift in American travel behavior.” While it admits that per capita ridership has declined since 2008, it blames that on the recession. It prefers to go back to 1995, “because after that year, ridership increased due to the passage of the landmark ISTEA legislation and other surface transportation bills which increased funding for public transportation.” Effectively, APTA argues that people will ride transit if you subsidize them enough, and so therefore subsidies should be increased still further.

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