Last week’s commuter train crash in New Jersey has left people wondering how safe our transportation system really is. We can answer this question with data from National Transportation Statistics, which show passenger miles, fatalities, and injuries by mode of transportation since 1990.
Table One: Fatalities per billion passenger miles by mode. As noted in the text, the most recent decade is 2005-2014 except for commuter rail, which is 2003-2012. Sources: Calculated from National Transportation Statistics, tables 1-40, 2-1, 2-34, and 2-35.
|Mode||1990-1999||Last 10 Years||Change
The statistics show transit data only through 2012, but the Federal Transit Administration has safety data for the years since then. Unfortunately, the Federal Railroad Administration, not the Federal Transit Administration, monitors commuter rail safety, and it doesn’t seem to publish those numbers, so we only have them through 2012.
Two weeks ago, the Denver suburb of Centennial announced it would subsidize transit riders to use Uber or Lyft to or from their transit stop from or to their origin or final destination. By solving the “last-mile” problem, they hope that this will make transit more attractive to Centennial residents.
A couple of days later, the Livermore Amador Valley Transit Authority announced it would do the same for transit riders in Dublin and other nearby suburbs of San Francisco-Oakland.
Through such agreements, ride-sharing services are trying to persuade transit supporters that they aren’t competitors, but potential partners with transit agencies. Some of them are buying it, while others are more skeptical. The Antiplanner thinks this is just a transition phase before the complete elimination of transit in all but a few cities.
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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.